Wisconsin Basketball: Badgers Have Learned How to Win Close Games

The Wisconsin basketball team is getting the job done late in games

Bronson Koenig drained a deep 3-pointer to tie the game and hit another at the buzzer to advance the Wisconsin basketball team past Xavier 66-63 on Sunday night in another example of how much this team has improved late in close games.

This year’s Wisconsin Badgers have always had the talent to compete with any team in the country, but the team’s youth and bad luck led to several close losses early in the season.

On Jan. 12, the Badgers lost their third game in a row 70-65 on the road against Northwestern to drop the Badgers’ record to 9-9 overall and 1-4 in Big Ten play. That day was certainly the low point of Wisconsin’s season, which was frustrating for Badger fans because the team was so close to winning a lot of those games.

Of Wisconsin’s first nine losses, seven of them were by six points or less, and the Badgers were just 2-7 in such games, including home losses to Western Illinois to open the season and UW-Milwaukee.

Wisconsin routinely went through shooting slumps late in games and caught some bad breaks, including Melo Trimble‘s last-second 3-pointer for Maryland to beat the Badgers and a pair of dagger threes from Purdue’s Dakota Mathias.

Since that January game in Evanston, Wisconsin is 5-0 in games decided by six points or less, including wins over Michigan State, Indiana and its first two NCAA Tournament games against Pittsburgh and Xavier to advance to the Sweet 16.

How were the Badgers able to come away with wins in those five games? Let’s take a look.

Against Michigan State, Koenig was able to find Ethan Happ under the basket for the game-winning layup with 10 seconds left, and luckily for Wisconsin, Denzel Valentine missed an open look from the top of the key as the Badgers beat the Spartans 77-76 in Madison.

The Badgers made enough free throws to overcome a late rally by Penn State and won 66-60 four days later. Nigel Hayes tied the game against Indiana twice in the final 45 seconds with four clutch free throws and defended Yogi Ferrell into a tough shot at the end of regulation before the Badgers won 82-79 in overtime.

That brings us to the NCAA Tournament. While it was the most difficult game to watch so far in the tournament offensively, the Badgers were able to grind out a close win against Pittsburgh in the first round.

Defensively, Wisconsin limited the Panthers to one field goal in the final 4 minutes, 41 seconds. After Happ missed the second of two free throws in the final seconds, Hayes grabbed the offensive rebound and sealed the game with a pair of free throws for a 47-43 Badger victory.

In the second-round game against Xavier, the Badgers trailed by nine points with six minutes remaining. Wisconsin calmly knocked down its next five free throws and eventually cut the lead down to one with 1 minute, 34 seconds left.

Koenig tied the game at 63 with 11.7 seconds left before Zak Showalter made a great play defensively by drawing a charge like he has all season long. Wisconsin got the ball back, and Koenig hit the game-winner from the corner to advance the Badgers to their fifth Sweet 16 in the last six years.

Close wins were difficult to come by early in the season, but whether it is luck or simply more experience, the Badgers’ weakness has turned into a strength. Several games have come down to the final possession in this tournament, and Wisconsin should be confident this Friday night when the Badgers play Notre Dame because Greg Gard‘s Badgers have learned how to win.