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Badgers have faced highs and lows in NCAA tournament with Greg Gard at the helm

March 22, 2019

When Ethan Happ is asked to list some of his best memories from his five seasons with the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball program, one scene immediately comes to mind.

The setting was a locker room in what was then called the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, one of the eight host cities for the opening weekend of the 2016 NCAA tournament. The Badgers had just knocked off Xavier 66-63 on a 3-pointer by Bronson Koenig at the buzzer, a victory that clinched a spot in the Sweet 16.

The part of the celebration Happ remembers most is grabbing anybody he could find to hug, screaming the entire time. “I couldn’t calm myself down,” he said. “That was a really great moment in my life.”

A similar scene played out a year later in Buffalo, New York, after UW had booked another trip in the Sweet 16 with a 65-62 victory. Nigel Hayes was the savior in that one, scoring the go-ahead basket against the defending national champions with 11.4 seconds remaining.

Another great moment in Happ’s life, to be sure.

And then there’s the flip side. Ask Happ for some of his worst memories with the Badgers, and a couple of obvious candidates stand out.

Five days after the win over Xavier in 2016, the Badgers’ season ended with a 61-56 loss to Notre Dame in Philadelphia. UW trailed for just 2 minutes, 17 seconds in that game, but it was outscored 8-0 over the final 19.3 seconds after Vitto Brown broke a tie score with a 3-pointer.

Happ watched the final 46.5 seconds from the bench after fouling out.

“I’m just sitting there the whole time thinking I can’t believe this is real life,” he said three years later. “This is miserable. I was so hurt.”

The next season-ending defeat was even more painful. Six days after the win over Villanova, the Badgers’ hopes of a third run to the Final Four in four seasons were crushed by Chris Chiozza at Madison Square Garden in New York. Chiozza’s 3-pointer off one leg went in as the buzzer sounded to give Florida an 84-83 overtime win over UW, completing a wild game in which the Badgers had rallied from a 12-point deficit late in regulation and blew a five-point lead in the final minute of the extra session.

“It just kills me to even talk about,” Happ said, “because we were going to play South Carolina to go to the Final Four.”

As the Badgers prepared for another postseason after a one-year hiatus from the NCAA tournament — they went 15-18 last season to miss out for the first time since 1998 — Happ was asked if the close losses are more painful than the close wins are exhilarating.

“I would say they’re almost equal,” he said.

One thing Happ can say with certainty is March Madness can lead to a roller coaster ride of emotions.

Happ and senior forward Khalil Iverson are the only UW players to appear in all six NCAA tournament games since Greg Gard took over as coach. Each of those games essentially has been a coin-flip situation.

Koenig wouldn’t have even gotten his one shining moment against Xavier — he also made a 3-pointer with 11.7 seconds left to tie the game — had the Badgers not won a close game two days earlier against Pittsburgh. Happ scored 12 of his game-high 15 points after halftime to help UW win 47-43 despite finishing with its lowest point total of the season. The Badgers trailed the Panthers for much of the game and by double digits in the first half.

Meanwhile, Hayes never would have been the savior against Villanova had the Badgers lost to Virginia Tech two days earlier. Led by eight 3-pointers from Koenig, a single-game program record, UW outlasted the Hokies 84-74 only after going on a 10-1 run over the final 2:08.

A bounce or two in any of those six games — the four wins and the two losses — and perspective changes on how the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons are viewed.

“Every game and every possession matters, as we preach, so it’s not a big adjustment when we get in the tournament,” UW assistant coach Howard Moore said. “We’ve got to make sure we’re locked in and understanding that these opponents have the ability to beat you and it’s one and done, so you better bring your best effort, you better bring your best concentration and focus, because you’re going to get theirs.

“It’s a big stage with a lot at stake, so you better be locked in.”

For all the joy and sadness the Badgers have experienced in recent years, nothing quite compared to how they were feeling last March.

After losing eight of nine games to drop to 10-15 overall and 3-9 in Big Ten play in early February, Happ and Co. realized their hopes of extending the program’s NCAA tournament streak came down to one thing: winning the Big Ten tournament.

A month later, UW’s season ended with a 63-60 loss to Michigan State in a quarterfinal game in New York.

The NCAA tournament began a couple of weeks later and Happ tried to cope by spending time on the beach while visiting his girlfriend in California. D’Mitrik Trice, whose 2017-18 season was cut short by a broken foot, said he watched very little of the tournament despite being a basketball nut.

“It was honestly a very weird time,” Trice said. “That was the first time I didn’t sit down and watch games.”

Now, the Badgers are back in it. Their next game could end up in elation or despair.

“All the bad teams are gone, so there are no gimmes,” Moore said. “No matter what conference the other team is from, you’re going to have to earn it.”