I still can’t believe what I saw, but I sure as hell believe in what Bo Ryan and his Wisconsin Badgers basketball team are doing in the B1G Conference this season.
As I wrote last month, I (along with the rest of the college-basketball world) have learned never to doubt a Ryan-led Badgers squad. There were times earlier this season when I struggled to understand and see how the 2012-’13 Badgers could rebound from the loss of Josh Gasser for the season and meld in time to put together a strong B1G campaign. They didn’t seem to have a go-to scorer, and many players (especially the underclassmen forced into more minutes due to Gasser’s injury) suffered defensive lapses that end up costing victories in close, hard-fought conference battles.
I stand here today proud to say that my early season observations were wrong, and that this year’s squad may be Ryan’s best coaching job to date.
Back to yesterday’s win over the No. 3-ranked Michigan Wolverines, a team many believe is the league’s finest and one that very well may be Final Four-bound. My brother and I took the plunge this year and bought season tickets, so I have had Feb. 9 circled on the calendar for months, anticipating my chance to see UM up close and personal. The 11 a.m. start time may have dampened the mood in some cities, but not Madison. The pregame atmosphere was as good as I have seen it all year, and both the students and the rest of the crowd came out early and got loud.
It’s interesting in hindsight to look back and realize how life sometimes provides clues of what is to come. I don’t keep up with all the music the kids listen to nowadays, but once I begin to hear a song here and there I generally try to figure out to whom I am listening. During pregame warmups of late, the PA has played this song while the Badgers shoot around. Yesterday my brother and I noticed the team really seemed to perk up while it played. A sign of things to come, perhaps?
Being an eternal optimist, I go into every game — home and away — believing the Badgers will win. In my mind, that’s the only way a fan should view things, even if their team is horrible. I realize that sometimes a victory is far less probable than others, but I always believe my team will get the W. That said, I cannot think of one instance in the past week when I had a single doubt that the Badgers would emerge victorious. When I think back, it’s almost like every “sign” pointed to victory.
I have watched my fair share of UW come-from-behind thrillers and buzzer-beaters on TV, but had only once before witnessed one in person, versus UNC-Wilmington back in 2005. The difference, however, is that game would have been a major upset had the Seahawks knocked off the Badgers. Yesterday, UW was the underdog, despite the fact that the Kohl Center is one of the toughest places in the country for opponents to win, and the Wolverines have not won a game in Madison since the Dick Bennett era.
The game was as dead-even as can be through the first 39 minutes. It was not until Jarred Berggren’s posterization of Trey Burke could you feel like the game might be decided. But, as seems to happen in all epic games, things swung back the other way, as Tim Hardaway Jr. hit a clutch three-pointer over Mike Bruesewitz with 2.8 seconds remaining. It was if someone had let the air out of the balloon. The crowd, which had been anticipating an overtime, suddenly fell silent as UW called a timeout to strategize a last-second, length-of-the-court miracle. Still, something in my brain told me not to worry.
I can’t even explain what happened next, but to say that from our seats (from halfway up the third deck, in a corner) I can tell you whether a shot is going to go in or miss the instant it leaves the shooter’s hand. It’s something that I am sure you can’t see from the lower decks, and is one of the things I have come to enjoy about our otherwise mediocre location. From the second Ben Brust caught the ball, turned, dribbled and heaved, I knew it was good. When it hit the net, the Kohl Center exploded like I never have seen before. Truly a magical day.
Overtime was as tense and close as regulation, but with every passing possession the reality of the upset became more clear. The final 30 seconds — during which there appeared to be some confusion among both teams and coaches — seemed to take forever. But when Trey Burke’s three-pointer clanked off the back rim and Traevon Jackson snared the rebound, jubilation ensued. It was my first time seeing the Badgers knock off a top-five team in person, and I will never forget it. We even made our way down to the court to enjoy the celebration.
Here’s the highlight reel, as assembled by the UW Athletic Department. Told you that song was a sign of things to come! ON WISCONSIN!