Wisconsin Basketball: Badgers fumble the game away

Mar 28, 2023; Las Vegas, NV, USA; North Texas Mean Green guard Aaron Scott (1) celebrates the victory against the Wisconsin Badgers at Orleans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 28, 2023; Las Vegas, NV, USA; North Texas Mean Green guard Aaron Scott (1) celebrates the victory against the Wisconsin Badgers at Orleans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports /

Unselfishness. One of the characteristics that I love most about the big men of Wisconsin is what caused them to lose 56-54 to the University of North Texas in the Final Four of the NIT.

Wisconsin basketball came out on fire

The Badgers took control from the opening tip and Chucky drilled a 3-pointer for the first points of the game. The rest of the first half was more of the same, as Wisconsin shot 6-15 from long range, led by Hepburn’s 5-8 for 15 points. The Badgers were also 6-13 from inside the arc.

This is how good Wisconsin’s offense was in the first half. UNT came into the game ranked first in the country in points allowed, surrendering an average of 55.7 points per game. Wisconsin scored 41 in the first 20 minutes.

UNT’s switch

At halftime, North Texas’s coach Grant McCasland made a seemingly innocuous move that probably won the Mean Green the game. He had a more physical and taller guard Kai Huntsberry guard Hepburn instead of the diminutive Tylor Perry.  Hepburn, who had 15 points in the first stanza, would not score a point for the rest of the game.

However, Hepburn was by no means the only Badger to wither away in the second half. The collective team scored a total of 13 points in 20 minutes. It seemed as though everything that could go wrong did.

The free-throw demon reared its ugly head once again. Through the first three games of the tourney, Wisconsin basketball had shot 55-65, an 84.6%. Tonight they shot four out of eight, 50%.

Their rebounding woes returned as well. During their NIT run, they had out-rebounded each opponent. Against a smaller UNT squad, they lost the rebound battle 36-32.

Then there was the customary scoring drought. Except for this time it lasted over the nine final minutes of the game. When Essegian hit his second three-pointer on the evening at the 9:08 mark in the second half, UW was up 54-46.

North Texas closed out the game on a 10-0 run.

Wisconsin basketball’s final possession

Greg Gard critics are going to have a field day because of the way the last possession was handled. Essegian came up with a steal with 20 seconds remaining. He gave the ball up to Hepburn, who brought the ball down the court. A handoff back to Connor and he began to streak around his defender to the bucket.

Essegian’s beautiful bounce pass to Wahl was for naught as he got his shot blocked. This was such a beautiful play as it developed. But an even better defensive play as UNT’s Aaron Scott elevated but avoided all body contact and cleanly swatted the ball away.

No worries, Klutch Klesmit was nearby and hustled to get the loose ball, fighting off a Mean Green defender in the process. As he gathered the ball and started to drive from the top of the key, Greg Gard called for a timeout.

Cue the Gard critics. Yes, in hindsight it was probably not the best decision. But, in the moment of the game, and as all hell was seemingly breaking loose, when is it a bad idea to stop, collect yourself, and set up a play that you can control? It is very easy for all of the couch coaches to sit and critique the game without the pressure involved.

So, the inbound play with 5.8 seconds left was drawn up. Klesmit passed to Hepburn at the top of the key, who made a nice pass to Crowl in the middle of the paint. As two UNT defenders collapsed on him, Crowl made a beautiful feed to an open Wahl on the right side of the bucket. UNT’s Scott recovered in an instant and instead of trying to muscle a layup, Wahl made a difficult pass around Scott’s body.

If there was ever a play to describe a season, it was this play. Beautiful throughout except for the finale. Wahl’s pass to Crowl was slightly deflected and as Crowl and UNT’s Sissoko rolled on the floor for the ball, time, and the Wisconsin basketball season, ran out.