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Sunday, March 23, 2014
Badgers ride emotion into Sweet 16

By Adam Rittenberg


MILWAUKEE -- The machine is consistent, reliable and unflappable. Bo Ryan's Wisconsin team operates on autopilot, humming along, a monotone of winning.

But basketball games, particularly those in the NCAA tournament, require teams to respond to emotional beats. When the season is at stake, it's going to get emotional. When you're down 12 points at halftime in a building 80 miles away from your campus, it's going to get very emotional.

The Wisconsin basketball machine is decidedly unemotional. But there the Badgers were in the closing minutes Saturday night, flapping their arms to incite Kohl Center East, the arena formerly known as the Bradley Center, which roared in approval. There were chest-bumps and fist-pumps and hugs and primal screams. After defeating Oregon 85-77 to advance in the West regional, Wisconsin players waited for Ryan to finish his television interview and then encircled him in a hybrid mosh pit/dance party near center court.

Ben Brust
Ben Brust, who came up big for the Badgers with a late 3, moved the ball against Oregon's Damyean Dotson.
There will be more significant games in this tournament than Wisconsin-Oregon. There might be better ones, although Saturday's will be hard to eclipse in dramatic swings. There won't be a more emotional atmosphere.

"It was literally like a home game," Badgers guard Josh Gasser said. "At this time of the year, that's not what you're expecting as a player. That doesn't happen. For us to be playing in Milwaukee and have all our fans there, supporting us and acting like the Kohl Center, I'm speechless about that."

Emotion characterized the game throughout, but it worked against the Badgers in the first half. So did Oregon, which delivered an offensive performance -- 49 points, 55.6 percent shooting, 14 of 15 from the foul line, 19 fast-break points -- to break the machine. Joseph Young had 17 and Jason Calliste had 14, not missing from either the field (3-for-3) or the foul line (7-for-7).

The officiating also rankled Wisconsin players, coaches and fans. The final 117 seconds were miserable, as a 5-point deficit swelled to 12, thanks in part to a technical foul on Ryan.

"I probably wasn't behaving," Ryan said. "So we had to pay."

At halftime, Ryan asked players how they wanted to feel on the bus ride back to Madison. Hard work, especially with transition defense, could result in a happy bus. Anything less, and the hourlong ride would feel like days.

Ryan had one final question before excusing the players for second-half warm-ups: Who is the best defensive player in the room?

"I'm the best defensive player in the room," he told the team. "I got a technical. They made their 14th straight free throw or 13th and then they missed the second one. I'm the only guy that got them to miss. I think some of the guys looked at me like, 'Did he just say that?'

Wisconsin Celebration
Sam Dekker showed some emotion in Wisconsin's win.
"I said that to loosen them up. Maybe it did."

No maybe about it.

The machine isn't programmed to allow 49 points in a half. It's also not programmed to erase a 12-point deficit in 6 minutes, 34 seconds.

Wisconsin reclaimed the lead before the second media timeout and hit 12 of its first 16 shots, including four 3-pointers. Like Young and Calliste in the first half, Badgers standouts Frank Kaminsky, Ben Brust and Gasser couldn't miss.

"We used the energy of the crowd, the energy that each other gave, and we harnessed it into the right energy," Brust said.

The shots eventually stopped falling but Wisconsin's signature defense returned. Oregon scored just 28 points in the second half, none on fast breaks.

But thanks to Young, Oregon still led 75-74 when Wisconsin, the Big Ten's second-worst offensive rebounding team, grabbed three offensive boards on one possession. The second allowed Ryan to call timeout and sub in Brust, who had been out with four fouls.

"Those were more spirited efforts to the glass than you'd seen," assistant coach Lamont Paris said. "We have times where we're talking about making a first and second move to the glass. We had four or five guys make three different moves to the offensive glass.

"They channeled the emotion, and they put it into action in a positive way.”

After Sam Dekker corralled a Kaminsky miss, Traevon Jackson found Brust on the right elbow for a 3-pointer.

"Ben's gonna hit that," Dekker said. "He hits the big shots. He loves the big moment."

Brust's 228th career 3-pointer gave him the team record. It also gave Wisconsin the lead for good.

"It was a special moment," Brust said. "I'm just happy we got the win. I want to keep going. I don't want this to end."

The Badgers earned the chance to keep going to the Sweet 16 for the third time in five years. They'll face Creighton or Baylor for the chance to reach the Elite Eight for the first time since 2005.

Is Thursday's game more important? No doubt. Will the atmosphere match Saturday's? Not a chance.

"You have to be in their shoes to know that feeling, and know I was feeling it," Ryan said. "I was pretty pumped up, too. That's a lot of emotion for our guys to show."

The machine bared its soul Saturday night. It left the court humming a different tune: On Wisconsin.