Lucas at Large: Gassed Gasser overcomes flu bug in Badgers' win

Icon-Vandy11.jpgA nauseous Josh Gasser got his wake-up call at 12:30 a.m. Saturday. The UW sophomore guard was not green in honor of St. Patrick's Day, either. Mike Bruesewitz was watching a movie when he heard something that he didn't want to hear from Gasser, his road roommate.
    
"Josh went to the bathroom," Bruesewitz related, "and he says, 'Mike, call Henry.'"

Henry is Henry Perez-Guerra, the trainer for the UW men's basketball team.

"That's when I got quarantined out of my room," said Bruesewitz, who joined Badger teammates Dan Fahey and Jordan Smith in their hotel room. Gasser was isolated, and the virus was severe enough that he was unable to get back to sleep because of vomiting and diarrhea.
       
"To be honest, I probably only slept from noon to 2 (p.m.) until we left for the game," he said.

It was not just any game, mind-you, but a third round NCAA Tournament game against Vanderbilt, the No. 5 seed. In preparation for chasing and checking John Jenkins - a prolific 3-point sniper - Gasser had three Saltine crackers. "That was my pre-game meal," he said.

Throughout his ordeal, he was hooked up to IVs. He didn't suffer alone, though.    Bo Ryan's wife, Kelly, was too sick to attend the game. So was redshirt freshman Jarrod Uthoff. The virus also weakened several members of the UW travel party, including some cheerleaders.

In the early morning hours, Bruesewitz admitted that "It was looking real suspect." That was his prognosis on whether Gasser would be ready for the 4:10 p.m. tipoff (MT) at The Pit. The prospect of trying to deal with Jenkins without Gasser would be the pits, he thought.

"But we have world class trainers in Henry and Dr. O (Dr. John Orwin, the team's orthopedic surgeon)," Bruesewitz said. "They were really proactive and able to get fluids into Josh and they got everything under control. I didn't think for a second that Josh wasn't going to play. He's a tough kid."

By then, Gasser had already made up his mind. "I knew I was going to play, it really wasn't a question," said Gasser, a member of the Big Ten's All-Defensive team. "But I also knew that I wasn't going to play as much as I normally do because I didn't have the energy that I normally do."

That was apparent during the pregame warm-ups. Not only did Gasser look peaked, but he appeared to be conserving energy, by design. "I got a few shots up," he said. "But I knew I would be chasing Jenkins around most of the game and I wanted to be able to maintain that for 40 minutes."

Icon-Vandy8.jpgUW coach Bo Ryan did a masterful job managing his bench and getting the most out of Gasser, who played 24 minutes in the UW's hard-fought 60-57 win over Vanderbilt. "I definitely didn't want this to be my last game this year because it would have been tough to swallow," Gasser said.

Not to worry, the Boston-bound Badgers have survived on their grit and toughness and advanced to the Sweet 16 where they will run into a No. 1 seed, Syracuse, in Thursday's East Regional semifinals at the TD Garden, the 18,000-seat home venue for the Celtics and Bruins.

"It's not about how you start, it's about how you finish, that's the best way to describe it," Bruesewitz said in response to a question about the UW's 1-3 start in the Big Ten. "We knew we had a tough group, a real gritty group. Maybe the best example is Josh getting sick the night before the game.

"But what happens in the closing minutes? Jordan (Taylor) missed a shot, and who tracks it down? Josh. He gets fouled, misses the free throw, but Ryan Evans comes up with a big defensive rebound on Jenkins miss and then Berg (Jared Berggren) knocks down their in-bounds pass."

All those contributions, Bruesewitz pointed out, came from different contributors. That's how the final box score read, too. Five different players scored 10 or more points and everybody who got into the Vanderbilt game came down with at least two rebounds; highlighting the team balance.

"I've been saying this for a long time," Berggren said, "when we get all of our guys contributing that's when we are at our best. When we get Mike (Bruesewitz) shooting the ball and Ben (Brust) shooting the ball and Josh gritting through his illness ... that's just huge."

Referencing that 1-3 conference pothole in early January, Berggren said, "We still knew we had a good team, and we never got too down on ourselves. Guys kept believing and we kept fighting and we were able to turn things around and get on a winning streak."

Maybe the Badgers needed a starting point, albeit a season low point, to build from. That's how UW associate head coach Greg Gard saw it. "That 1-3 stretch toughened us, and forced us to grow up in areas where we needed to be mature in," he said. "It's all about how you respond to adversity."

As such, Ryan and his assistants leave nothing to chance. Thus with the uncertainty surrounding Gasser's availability, they got Traevon Jackson and Duje Dukan ready to play against Vandy, if needed. "We wanted to make sure they knew what we were trying to do and were ready to go," Gard said.

Was there any doubt about Gasser? Not for Gard. "He's a gritty kid, a hard-nosed kid," he said. "Unless the doctor was going to make him stay in the hotel room, he was going to play. You have to credit him for gutting it out, and you have to credit his teammates for stepping up."

That has been the storyline since the players assembled to run Elver Hill at the start of classes. "We had a lot of young guys who had to grow up and be in these roles for the first time," Gard said. "I don't know in November whether they would have had the grit to get through this (Vandy)."

After Friday's practice, Gard discussed some of the keys for controlling Jenkins and beating the Commodores. "It's going to come down to a lot of blood and guts plays,'' he said. "At this stage of the season, a lot of times the hustle plays make the difference.''

When the contact escalated in The Pit, the Badgers felt like they were in their element. "It was one of the more physical games we've played, and usually Big Ten games are physical," Gasser said. "But this was right up there. That's how it's supposed to be - that's how you want it to go to the Sweet 16."

When he was on the floor, Gasser made it as tough as he could on Jenkins, and he got plenty of help from his teammates. "They were setting double and triple screens for him," Gasser said, "and he does a really good job of creating space, and getting that extra step. That's all he really needs."

The guards were not solely responsible for contesting Jenkins' shots. "I was just trying to get a hand in his face," said Berggren. "We knew that if I played off and let him come off their bigs uncontested, he's going to knock down those shots, especially coming right to left, he's money."

That's how it unfolded in the dramatic closing seconds with the Badgers clinging to a precarious two-point lead. Vanderbilt ran a play for Jenkins who came off a Festus Ezeli screen and got separation on his chaser. Moving right to left, he launched a shot from beyond the arc.

"I tried to come out on him, but I was probably a half-step late," Berggren said. "I tried to get a hand up as much as possible but he got a pretty good look. When the ball was in the air, I think my heart stopped for a second. It was straight-on and I thought, 'Please don't go in.'

"But he back-rimmed it, and Ryan (Evans) made a big play getting the rebound."

Evans fought off the 6-foot-11, 255-pound Ezeli for the board. The Vandy bench protested that he had pushed off, but Ezeli had been clearing space the whole game. "He was one of the biggest dudes I've ever played against," Evans said. "I got into his body and went up and grabbed it and got fouled."

Evans made one free throw, and Berggren deflected the in-bounds pass to seal the win - sending the Badgers into the Sweet 16. "It says so much about us as a team," Evans said. "Everyone is contributing. In order to make a deep run that's what you have to do, and we're doing it."

Jordan Taylor knew his teammates had enough grit to get it done. "When we were up by seven with six minutes left we knew it was far from over," he said. "We knew that they weren't going away quietly. But we were able to withstand their run and make just enough plays to win."

Taylor's dad was in Albuquerque but his mom didn't make the trip because of the travel expense. But she has a ticket for Boston. And the Badgers have punched theirs. "We didn't want to send Jordan and Rob home early," Bruesewitz said. "We like those guys too much."


ON WISCONSIN