MADISON, Wis. — The party that took place Tuesday night at the Kohl Center was grand.
Not long after Chucky Hepburn banked in the game-winning 3-pointer with seconds remaining, hundreds of fans who were part of a raucous crowd rushed the court. Then came the confetti, the t-shirts, the caps, the trophy hoisting, and, finally, the net cutting.
Picked to finish 10th in the Big Ten ahead of the season, the Wisconsin Badgers deserved that type of celebration after clinching a share of the conference regular-season title with a 70-67 victory over Purdue. But they knew they had to win one more game — against last-place Nebraska at home — to clinch the outright title.
“Before we even started celebrating in the locker room, we talked about how we didn’t want to share this with anybody,” graduate-senior center Chris Vogt said.
But that’s now the Badgers’ reality. They’re Big Ten co-champions with Illinois.
The No. 10 Badgers (24-6, 15-5) finished the regular season with a dud and looked hungover at various points throughout a 74-73 loss to the 10-21 Huskers. About 250 miles south in Champaign, Illinois, the Illini took down Iowa later Sunday, clinching the top seed in the Big Ten tournament because of a head-to-head tiebreaker over Wisconsin. The Badgers hold the No. 2 seed and will face No. 7 Michigan State or No. 10 Maryland at 6:30 p.m. Friday in Indianapolis.
“This stings and wasn’t us in a lot of different ways,” UW head coach Greg Gard said. “Today wasn’t good, but the season has been fantastic.
“…Now, everyone is zero and zero, and you have to move on to the next one.”
Responding to losses has been one of the Badgers’ strengths, as they haven’t dropped consecutive games all year. They won at least two straight games after each of their previous five losses and had winning streaks of five, six and seven games following three of them.
With NCAA Tournament seeding on the line in Indianapolis, now would be a poor time for that trend to reverse. Some projections had the Badgers as a No. 2 seed entering Sunday, which could mean starting the tournament 81 miles east in Milwaukee.
“I think a lot of our losses this year have been self-inflicted,” fifth-year senior guard Brad Davison said. “Whether it’s not executing down the stretch or different things defensively. It’s just about learning from them and sticking together. We know the talent we have.
“When we execute and follow our game plan, we know how good we can be. It’s just about staying resilient and learning from losses and sticking together. And that’s what we’ll do again.”
Here’s a look at UW’s possible opponents in the first two rounds of the conference tournament.
Michigan State: The Badgers split with the Spartans this season, winning on the road and losing at home. In the 70-62 victory at the Breslin Center on Feb. 8, sophomore guard Johnny Davis scored 25 points. He scored 15 of his 18 second-half points in the final 10:22.
Junior forward Tyler Wahl, who averaged more than 11 points and five rebounds per game during the regular season, didn’t play in an 86-74 loss to the Spartans at the Kohl Center on Jan. 21 due to an ankle injury. MSU outrebounded UW 39-20 in that contest and got 43 bench points compared to UW’s seven.
Maryland: The Badgers got off to a comfortable 29-8 lead but had to hold on in the end for a 70-69 road victory on Jan. 9. While Wahl scored a career-best 21 points, sophomore forward Steven Crowl made the biggest shot of the game, breaking a 57-57 tie with a 3-pointer down the stretch. The Badgers led the rest of the way and went 8 of 10 from the foul line over the final 5:19.
Should the Badgers reach the semifinal round, they’ll likely face No. 6 Ohio State or No. 3 Purdue.
Ohio State: The Badgers last played the Buckeyes at home in early January and won that contest, 78-68. Wahl scored 20 points with seven rebounds and six assists, while Davison scored 25 points on 7 of 12 shooting (4 of 6 from three). That was one of UW’s better 3-point shooting efforts of the season, as six players combined for 10 makes on 23 attempts.
The Buckeyes throttled UW in December, 73-55, in Columbus. OSU’s E.J. Liddell scored 28 points with nine rebounds. Davis led UW with 24 but didn’t get much support from his teammates. The Buckeyes finished with a 49-28 rebounding edge and scored 11 second-chance points on eight offensive boards.
Purdue: Wahl led the Badgers with 19 points on 8 of 14 shooting in UW’s victory over Purdue last Tuesday. Hepburn set career-highs in points (17) and 3-pointers (4 of 6). However, the Badgers had trouble containing center Zach Edey (17 points, nine rebounds) and guard Jaden Ivey (22 points). The Boilermakers scored 20 second-chance points.
In the 74-69 victory over the then-No. 3 Boilermakers at Mackey Arena on Jan. 3, Davis scored 37 points with 14 rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocked shots. It was the first time a player led his team in all five of those statistical categories in a road win over a top-5 team since Tim Duncan did so in 1997. UW held Ivey to 14 points, but Edey had 24 with eight rebounds.
The two victories gave UW its first regular-season sweep of Purdue since 2014.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism