Philadelphia - When Wisconsin's 6-foot-9 freshman forward Ethan Happ made a layup with 13:27 left in the second half of last night's Sweet 16 matchup against Notre Dame at the Wells Fargo Center, he gave his team what looked like a comfortable 34-26 lead.
Obviously, with over ten minutes remaining in the game and due the true nature of March Madness, the chance for a Fighting Irish comeback was realistic. But glancing at the first half stat sheet said otherwise.
When the halftime horn sounded, as both teams jogged into the locker room with Wisconsin holding a 23-19 advantage, the crowd, through a smattering of applause, exhaled a sigh of relief. The game thus far was competitive and hard-fought, but uglier than Kanye's high end women's fashion line. It actually resembled two water buffaloes fornicating.
The Badgers made only 35% of their field goal attempts in the first half, Notre Dame's field goal percentage was more unattractive than Caitlyn Jenner and Biz Markie's hypothetical love child at 24%. Their best player, heady point guard Demetrius Jackson, despite his four assists, shot a miserable 1 for 7. Starting forwards V.J. Beachem and Zach Auguste had three points apiece as well.
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So when Happ, who had an impressive 12 points and 10 rebounds within that muck, made his bucket about six and a half minutes into the second period, it looked like Wisconsin had a good chance of making its third straight Final Four appearance.
But just as we were about to hit the snooze button, things got lively. Jackson came alive and tied the game at 34 a few minutes later with his drive through traffic and lefty lay-in. For the remainder of the game, both teams traded buckets and the lead.
After Auguste converted both ends of a one-and-one to tie the score at 53 with 46.5 seconds left, the Wisconsin fans roared when their star junior forward Nigel Hayes, who had an off game with only 11 points and six turnovers, pushed the ball downcourt and delivered a crisp pass to junior forward Vitto Brown, who splashed a three-pointer, putting the Badgers up 56-53.
The remainder of the game was the Demetrius Jackson show.
His consecutive layups, the second coming off a crucial steal when the Fighting Irish trapped Hayes in the backcourt with 13 seconds left, gave Notre Dame a 57-56 lead. After V.J. Beachem, who also made amends for his earlier lethargy, hit two free throws to push the advantage to 59-56, Jackson stole the ball from Wisconsin point guard Bronson Koenig off the dribble, was fouled, and knocked down the freebies.
Beachem led all scorers with 19 points and had three steals, Zach Auguste added 13 points and 12 rebounds and Jackson scored 16 while dishing out six assists for the Irish.
This was truly a tale of two halves, as the Fighting Irish followed up their awful first half shooting with 58% of their shots after halftime, including 50% from deep.
The Badgers could not overcome their own shooting woes, along with 17 turnovers.
"We never quite got to where we needed to get taking care of the ball all year," said Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard. "And part of it is our youth. Part of it is things we've still got to mature through and grow."
Notre Dame, who has survived nail-biting games to advance in each round, scored 10 points in the final 46 seconds, punching their ticket back to the Elite Eight.
(Photo Credit: USA Today)
"Feels amazing to be going back," said Demetrius Jackson. "We just did a great job sticking with it. We did a great job giving ourselves a chance to win."
Wisconsin should have its top nine scorers back, so pencil them in as a serious Final Four contender next year.
Happ, who finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds, and junior guard Zak Showalter, whose most impressive of his 11 points was a soaring grab of a missed shot that he slammed home in the second half, did not get much help from the Badgers most dangerous weapons though, as Hayes and Koenig were held to 7 of 24 shooting and 19 total points collectively.
It's been a feel-good story for the Irish thus far. And if they can somehow stay close with No. 1 seed North Carolina in their Elite Eight matchup, UNC dominated Indiana 101-86 in the nightcap in Philly, perhaps this dream of a season will continue.