ST. LOUIS—It started with belief. Coming out of a timeout, Bronson Koenig was not the first option for what would become perhaps the most dramatic and consequential shot of his career. With two seconds left in the game and Wisconsin knotted with Xavier at 63, Badgers coach Greg Gard drew up a play designed first to get forward Nigel Hayes the ball in the paint, either for a turnaround shot or a chance to draw contact. But Koenig, the junior guard who was seeking a shot when the timeout was called, approached redshirt freshman Ethan Happ, who would be inbounding the ball. “He came over to me,” Happ recalled after the game, “and said, ‘If I’m open, give it to me, and I’m gonna knock it down.’”
Koenig’s chance at fulfilling his prophecy began with Hayes drawing a pair of Musketeers defenders in the post. Happ, quickly spotting the double team, instead turned to Koenig, who was streaking in front of him toward the right corner with Xavier defensive specialist Remy Abell on his tail. After catching the pass and taking one dribble, Koenig stepped back, rose and launched a three. The horn sounded. The ball swished. Seventh-seeded Wisconsin, just weeks ago considered on the wrong side of the bubble, had felled the second-seeded Musketeers, 66-63. The Badgers rushed over to mob the night’s hero. Watching on TV, Frank Kaminsky, who won the Wooden Award last season while leading Wisconsin to the national title game and now plays for the Charlotte Hornets, leapt from his chair and into a baseball slide across a nearby kitchen floor. A wild night of college hoops, capping a wild tourney-opening weekend, had been given its own fittingly wild cap.
“I knew it was going in,” said Koenig, who scored a game-high 20 points, “before it even left my hand.”
Less than six minutes earlier, the Badgers had trailed Xavier by eight, the largest gap since Wisconsin had raced out to a nine-point lead in the game’s first nine minutes. But the Badgers chipped away and trailed by just one entering the final minute. After Musketeers guard Edmond Sumner scored on a reverse layup with 31 seconds to play, Xavier led 63-60, setting the stage for a Koenig shot that was, by virtue of what would soon follow, almost immediately overshadowed: a pull-up trey from NBA range that tied the game with 14 seconds on the clock.
On the other end, with the clock ticking, Sumner again drove to the hoop. This time, Wisconsin’s sophomore guard Zak Showalter stood between Sumner and the basket, armed with a belief of his own: that in a potentially game-deciding moment, with the season hanging in the balance, he could bait Sumner into an offensive foul. “He went right all game,” Showalter explained later. “I tried to take (a charge) a couple of times.” He believed at this most crucial time he would succeed. When he and Sumner collided, as expected, Showalter fell backwards to the floor. A ref’s whistle blew. Charge. Wisconsin got the ball, four seconds from a dagger.
“This game was kind of a microcosm of our season from the standpoint of November, December, January,” Gard said. “It was like three minutes to go being down seven or eight, whatever we were, and this group would not quit, would not give in. We knew we had some fight left in us.”
So too did Hayes, the team’s leading scorer, who spent the early morning hours before the Badgers’ first-round win over Pittsburgh combing YouTube for videos about mental self-empowerment. One such clip mentioned As a Man Thinketh, a 6,800-word essay penned by the British self-help pioneer James Allen. Hayes downloaded a PDF file of the work onto his iPad and read it immediately, around 2 a.m. on Friday, and was struck by its message. “Not what he wishes and prays for does a man get,” Allen wrote, “but what he justly earns. His wishes and prayers are only gratified and answered when they harmonize with his thoughts and actions.” Hayes screen-shotted a pair of particularly apt pages and sent them to the Badgers’ group text-message chat. “I’m telling the guys,” Hayes explained Sunday night, “think we’re gonna win, believe we’re gonna win and then we’ll do the actions necessary to win the game.”
Before Sunday’s game against Xavier, Hayes and Koenig met in the right corner of the court’s north side for a traditional pregame one-on-one battle. Koenig hit, as he often does, several stepback jumpers over the 6’ 8” Hayes, each of them high-arcing and true. Some two-plus hours later, on the court’s opposite end, Hayes saw his teammate rise over Abell and knew, from having seen the action himself so many times, the swish that would follow. “He hits that shot on me five or six times before every game,” Hayes said.
Koenig had never done so with the stakes so high, and thus he had never done so to reap such a reward: a place in the Sweet 16, where Wisconsin now advances for the fifth time in six seasons. This, to many, may be the most surprising trip of all, not because of the late-game drama but because of all that had preceded it during the season. First came the surprise retirement of longtime coach Bo Ryan in mid-December, after the 12th game of the Badgers’ then-middling season. Then, a month later, they had just a 9–9 overall record and a 1–4 Big Ten mark, and there was a lot midseason speculation over whether Gard, the interim coach and Ryan's longtime right-hand man, would or should land the permanent gig as his replacement. And then, Gard and his team went on a tear, finishing the season by winning 11 of their last 13 games.
Even in Sunday’s buoyant locker room, where Badgers players had doused one another with water in a celebratory mosh pit upon convening after the win, the way their tribulations once dominated chatter around the team was not far from their minds. “The first part of the season we were always told how good we weren’t going to be,” Hayes said, adding: “When Coach Ryan left, people said this program was in shambles. Now we’re here, in the Sweet 16.” It was a turnaround that was not, for him, hard to believe.