Badgers rally past Oregon for Sweet 16 berth
The Oregon Ducks did the impossible Saturday night in the third round of the NCAA Tournament: the seventh-seeded, 10-loss team from over 2,000 miles away turned the 12th-ranked, second-seeded, 27-win Wisconsin Badgers from 78 miles away into an underdog in their adopted home arena of the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
And all it took was 20 minutes.
Oregon raced to 49 first half points and a 12-point lead over the favored, and host, Badgers. They shot 55.6 percent from the floor and from the 3-point line and poured in 19 points off the break.
It left the partisan crowd of 18,206 wondering what traffic would be like traveling through such a disappointing cloud. Mumbles in the concourse may not have grown louder than the rumbles in the arena, but they were uttered with as much passion, and with far more fear of another early tournament exit.
The Badgers don't seem to move well under the weight of expectation, a noun that fits Bo Ryan's teams about as well as a wool pea coat on a toddler.
Yet, down a dozen at the half, the Badgers shed that coat like they were greeted by an unexpected 60 degree day in a Wisconsin February en route to a stirring 85-77 victory.
An example: to open the game, Badgers sophomore Sam Dekker launched a 3-pointer that met nothing but the waiting hands of Oregon's Damyean Dotson, which led to a jumper by his teammate Mike Moser to open the scoring.
To open the second half, Dekker launched a 3 that met nothing but the waiting hands of teammate Traevon Jackson, who tipped it in and was fouled by Dotson. He hit the free throw. A 12-point lead was now single digits, and it was the Badgers who were off and running and it was the Ducks who tightened up.
"To start the second half, they really … they really came out swinging," Ducks coach Dana Altman said.
The Badgers hit 12 of their next 15 shots, finally erasing the deficit on a Frank Kaminsky jumper that made it 59-58 with 13 minutes, 26 seconds left.
The comeback sent the mostly red-clad crowd into an uproar, creating a vibe even Altman admitted helped sway the action on the court.
"Once that momentum swung, we were in trouble," he said.
"That crowd was unbelievable," Badgers guard Josh Gasser added. "When we were up or down, we'd make a little run or they make a run, they always seemed to just get us back into it somehow. In the NCAA Tournament, not many teams get that. We're pretty darn fortunate to have that."
Wisconsin would ride that momentum and stretch its lead to as many as six, and the "underdog" was making a run.
During the comeback, even the tournament's broadcast arm felt as much in an alert:
Ryan had seen his team was tight at halftime. He looked around the locker room, and could only describe that scene during his post-game press conference with physical gestures – a grimace paired with two balled fists.
So, he lightened the mood. He told his team he was the best defender in the room, "forcing" the Ducks to miss their only free throw of the first half on the back end of a technical foul called on him.
"We just didn't follow the game plan that we knew we needed to do," Gasser said of the first half. "They had a ton of transition points and they were just taking to us. (Nearly) 50 points speaks for itself. Coach Ryan obviously had a few words to say to get us going and we responded pretty well."
The Ducks eventually made a counter move, and even took the lead back on a Joseph Young 3-pointer with 2:50 to go.
What followed was a 1 minute, 43 second stretch that included three offensive rebounds and concluded with a Ben Brust 3-pointer that made it 77-75 Wisconsin with 1:07 to go. It was the back-breaker for the Ducks, and dream maker for the Badgers.
The roof of the BMO Harris Bradley Center rattled.
"When we finally got the ship righted and got back on course, took the lead there late when Joe hits the 3 and we take a one point lead and then we just couldn't get the rebound," Altman said. "As most games against good opponents do, they come down to getting some stops and some rebounds and we just didn't get it done."
Ryan's team had come out of the tunnel after the break unencumbered, and responded like a team that once rose to No. 3 in the nation. The Ducks didn't score a single point in transition in the final 20 minutes.
"We did all the things we talked about, that we should've done for 40 minutes but luckily we were able to do a good enough job in the last 20 there to get the job done," Badgers guard Ben Brust said.
The Badgers now head to the Sweet 16 in Anaheim, Calif. and will face either Baylor or Creighton on Thursday.
"It's a great feeling to be representing Badger nation and all of the Wisconsin people," said Badgers forward Duje Dukan. "It's definitely a great feeling after we worked so hard to get here."
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