MILWAUKEE – How are you going to feel on the bus ride home?
That one hung in the air for a bit. After Wisconsin's upperclassmen and leaders spoke at halftime, after the younger players and the redshirts and the walk-ons contributed their thoughts about how bad things were and how everyone could fix it, Bo Ryan took his usual turn for the last word. He wasn't angry. He wasn't emotional. The Badgers coach was plainspoken about how Oregon owned the first 20 minutes at the Bradley Center and led by 12 points. The last 20 minutes would dictate if Wisconsin, the West region's No. 2 seed, would leave a spectacularly loud, red-clad crowd silent or speechless.
One half to save everything. That's all there was to it. So the coach had a couple questions for his team.
What do you want to do? Ryan asked. How are you going to feel on the bus ride home?
“It was definitely a test,” Wisconsin forward Sam Dekker said. “This was more than a test.”
It was maybe the most rollicking, entertaining game in an already rip-roaring first weekend of the NCAA tournament, and Wisconsin came out of it with an 85-77 win over seventh-seeded Oregon to earn a berth in the Sweet 16. The Badgers were shaken by the Ducks’ blistering 55.6 percent first-half shooting but then recovered with an offensive detonation of their own, outscoring Oregon 48-28 in the second half. Overall the teams combined for 53 field goals, 19 three-pointers and 162 points. The Badgers had five players in double figures, led by Frank Kaminsky’s 19. The Ducks had Joseph Young, who put up one of the singular performances of the weekend with 29 points and zero turnovers in 34 minutes.
Nothing was decided until the final minutes, when a Ben Brust three-pointer with 67 seconds left thrust the Badgers ahead for good at 77-75. It was an especially notale shot because Brust was on the bench when the possession started, checking in only after a timeout that followed two Wisconsin missed shots and two Wisconsin offensive rebounds. That shot also gave Brust the school’s career record for made three-pointers. The relative absurdity and melodrama of all that suited the night well.
“It was a really disappointing loss,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “You play hard, you want to win, you get a little tight and miss some shots that you normally hit. When they got momentum swung the other way we didn’t play as loose and free as we needed to.”
Which was baffling in its own way, because the Ducks did exactly that to put a stranglehold on the first half. It was just a day earlier that Oregon assistant Brian Fish sat in a folding chair in a back hallway, near the Texas locker room, when a Longhorns coach approached to make small talk about who the Ducks had in wait the next day. “We got the home team,” Fish replied, with no small trace of cynicism. The Badgers would play just 80 miles from campus and reap the benefit of a favorably frothing atmosphere. Quelling that advantage would be critical for Oregon.
The Ducks got the fast start they needed, jumping ahead 9-4. Even after Wisconsin briefly took the lead, Oregon came back and went ahead by as many as 14 points. In all the Ducks raked the Badgers' defense for an eye-popping 1.441 points per possession before the break. Late in the first half, Dekker followed a shot into the lane and and his face connected with the elbow of an Oregon player. Instead of corralling a loose ball, Dekker worried about corralling a loose tooth, holding his hand up and speed-walking to the bench in pain.
Wisconsin running off the floor after being smacked in the mouth by Oregon: A fairly apt metaphor for what had happened to that point. “They had their way in the first half,” Badgers forward Nigel Hayes said.
That prompted the locker room heart-to-heart, as well as a bit of gallows humor. After asking his team how it wanted this game to end, Ryan said he polled his club on who its best defender was. The players looked at him, silent. He answered for them: He was the best defender, because Oregon only hit one of two free throws after the technical foul he picked up just before the break.
“I'm the only guy that got them to miss,” Ryan said.
He intended to loosen his bunch up, and the Badgers soon unburdened themselves entirely. They hit 11 of their first 15 shots from the floor after intermission, eventually recapturing a lead on a Kaminsky jumper six and a half minutes into the second half. Along the way, they were limiting the Ducks to what would be a very manageable 40.9 percent shooting in the second half and building a six-point edge. The preposterous efficiency on both ends couldn't last, and Oregon crawled all the way back to take a 75-74 lead on a Young three-pointer with 2:50 to go.
Then came the multi-miss, multi-rebound possession that ended in Brust's go-ahead three-pointer. When Young missed on the other end, the unofficial celebration commenced. “We worked it around, did all the thing we talked about that we should have done for 40 minutes,” Brust said. “Luckily we were able to do a good enough job in the last 20 to get the job done.”
Said Dekker: “You have to do whatever it takes. Whether it's taking bumps on the chin or a little bruises here and there, you have to take it and run with it.”
It was a night in which the Badgers literally had to pick themselves up off the floor; fighting for a rebound in the waning seconds, point guard Traevon Jackson was thrown down by frustrated Oregon guard Jason Calliste, who incurred a technical foul for it. After lying on his stomach for a few moments, Jackson jumped up and nodded his head and smiled, as his more excitable teammates stoked a crowd already up for grabs.
“It's all right,” Jackson said as he walked to the other end with a wide grin. “It's all right.”
By the end, the only thing rattled about Wisconsin was its eardrums, with the vast majority of those 18,000-plus fans drowning the team from 80 miles away with noise all night long. The Badgers hurled the ball toward the ceiling at the buzzer and swayed to the alma mater. They considered crashing Ryan's postgame television interview but thought better of it, opting instead to circle their coach and get him dancing.
They were enjoying this as much as everyone who watched it, a game played at a fever pitch in an atmosphere not likely to be replicated often in the NCAA tournament. “Best Wisconsin crowd I've ever played in, honestly,” Jackson said. “At times, man, I was like, you guys are helping us out big time. I've never been in a Wisconsin game that loud.”
The energy hadn't left the building 45 minutes after the final horn, as Jackson, Brust, Kaminsky and Josh Gasser walked down the hall and back to the locker room. Brust, the combustible soul of the team, was two steps ahead of everyone else, limping behind with ice bags on their knees and hitches in their gait.
Kaminsky asked if the group could walk slower.
“Yeah, bro,” Jackson said. “Chill out for a second.”
“I can't,” Brust said. “I'm ready to run.”
It was an energizing night, one of the most entertaining of an already fascinating tournament, and that ride home was about to feel real good.
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