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Wisconsin Badgers vs Rutgers Scarlet Knights 03.07.24
Badgers Claw Their Way to Victory Over Scarlet Knights in men's basketball 03.07.24

Badgers’ frenzied week ends with chance at Big Ten glory

Wisconsin has a chance to win its first Big Ten tournament title since 2015 with a victory Sunday.

The Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball team will play for the Big Ten Tournament title Sunday afternoon after a pulsating victory over No. 3 Purdue on Saturday. 

You wouldn’t be mistaken if this seemed difficult to envision. Only a couple of weeks ago, the Badgers finished February 2-7 after losing to Indiana. They trudged into Minneapolis for the conference tournament following a loss at Purdue

It turns out a week can make all the difference. 

First, the Badgers put on an offensive clinic Thursday, shooting 64% from the 3-point line on their way to a dominant 87-56 win over Maryland. 

Then, the heat turned up as they took on a well-rested Northwestern team Friday, who finished the regular season with a solid 21-10 record. The Badgers withstood a 29-point heater from Boo Buie — in part thanks to a 30-point masterpiece from AJ Storr — to advance to the Big Ten semifinals against a Boilermakers squad that had dispatched them not even a week earlier. 

Purdue also had scored another win over the Badgers in Madison earlier in the season, and the Boilermakers had only lost three games all season. But on St. Patrick’s Day weekend, the third time was the charm for the Badgers. 

Wisconsin defeated Purdue 76-75 despite another double-double from Zach Edey. Wisconsin only shot 21% from the 3-point line, and Purdue had 23 more free throw attempts. However, Wisconsin hung around all game until Chucky Hepburn — the Badgers’ undisputed MVP on the day — hit a buzzer-beater layup to force overtime. 

Wisconsin faced tremendous adversity in the extra period as Steven Crowl, Tyler Wahl, and Nolan Winter had all fouled out by the middle of the period. This left reserve 6’7” Carter Gilmore to guard the 7’4” Edey. Gilmore played valiantly, and Max Klesmit delivered the dagger with only a few seconds remaining. The Badgers had their fans tearing their hair out after a dismal February, but they don’t call March mad for nothing. There’s something about this month on the college basketball calendar that can flip the switch for any team.

What’s next for the Badgers?

After exiting in the first round last year, and facing the prospect of four games in four days this year, the Badgers have righted the ship just in time for the NCAA Tournament. 

On Saturday, Wisconsin showed flashes of what makes them a dangerous March team. Storr flaunted  his elite scoring ability the last two days, and Hepburn was a two-way marvel for Wisconsin. Hepburn posted 22 points and completely shut down Purdue guard Braden Smith, holding the Big-Ten first team honoree to just seven points. 

What’s more, Klesmit found his shooting touch, and Kamari McGee returned from injury to provide a spark off the bench. Regardless of what happens in March Madness, the Badgers have earned the right to win the Big Ten Tournament for the first time since 2015. 

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A tough battle against the Illinois Fighting Illini still stands in the way. After Purdue, Illinois was the class of the Big Ten this season, and they enter Sunday’s contest with a 26-8 record. 

The Badgers last met Illinois only a couple weeks ago in Madison, when Illinois pulled away for a 91-83 win. But they are facing a different Badgers team now after just a 15-day gap. Even then, Wisconsin was competitive despite a 4-12 shooting performance from Storr and only a four-point outing for center Steven Crowl. 

The Fighting Illini finished with the Big Ten’s best offense this season, led by a two-headed monster at guard. Terrance Shannon Jr. paces the team with an average of nearly 22 points per game, and he recorded a Big Ten Tournament record 40 points in Illinois’ semifinal victory over Nebraska. 

Shannon’s co-star is Wisconsin native Marcus Domask, who averages nearly 16 points per game and put up 31 in the last game against the Badgers. 

While Illinois clearly boasts a potent offense, their lackluster defense ranks in the bottom four of the conference this season. That’s good news for Wisconsin, who shot just 74% from the free throw line and 38% from three in its last matchup with Illinois. They still managed to put up 83 points, so Wisconsin will get their chances offensively Sunday. 

On the other side, the Badgers faced a similarly explosive offense Saturday in Purdue but held them off long enough to pull out the win. Wisconsin will need to lean on Hepburn to play extraordinary defense again and win the frontcourt battle for more success Sunday. The Badgers experienced duo of Wahl and Crowl need to make their presence known as Illinois will definitely get lots of points from their backcourt. 

While the Badgers are safely in the NCAA Tournament, a win Sunday would accelerate their momentum even further and send them home with Big Ten hardware. 

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