March 23, 2014
BY MIKE LUCAS
MILWAUKEE -- Some things may be best left unsaid. Except when you’re fighting for your competitive life in the NCAA tournament, and you’re trailing by 12 points to a front-running Oregon bunch that was getting more and more confident with each made shot and free throw.
So what was said at halftime Saturday night in the Wisconsin locker room at the BMO Harris Bradley Center? How was it said? And who said it? Some may have had more to say than others. But after the Badgers rallied for a dramatic 85-77 victory, it goes without saying that everybody got the message.
“Coach Ryan obviously had a few words to say to get us going,” Josh Gasser said.
It was the 924th time that Bo Ryan had addressed players at halftime of a college game.
“Coach has always been very good at that,” said UW associate head coach Greg Gard.
Good how? “When he needs to be emphatic,” Gard said, “he’s emphatic.”
But the message can range from the sublime to the ridiculous -- by Ryan’s own admission.
“The last thing I said before we went out (for the second half) was, ‘Who’s the best defensive player in the room?’“ recalled Ryan, who summarily nominated himself for that distinction. Huh?
“I got a technical,” he said, pointing out Oregon had made 14 straight before Joseph Young finally missed the second of two technical foul free throws. “I’m the only guy that got them to miss.”
Cue the laughter, or not. “I think some of the guys looked at me like, ‘Did he just say that?’“ Ryan acknowledged. “I just said that to loosen them up. Maybe it worked. Maybe it was part of it.”
Maybe a very small part of it.
“Coach told us at halftime, ‘How are you going to feel on the bus ride home? Do you want it to be a good feeling? Or do you want it to be a bad feeling?’“ said junior center Frank Kaminsky.
It’s a 90-minute drive from Madison to Milwaukee. But a loss may have made the return trip feel like an eternity. “That really hit home with me,” Kaminsky said, “and with some other people, too.”
That was most assuredly the case with Wisconsin freshman guard Bronson Koenig.
“Coach pretty much asked, ‘How good do we want to be? Do we want to go home?’“ said Koenig. “He just kind of questioned our toughness a little bit.”
Ryan was not the only one who spoke up.
“We’re not in there (the locker room) for the whole halftime,” Gard said. “We meet as coaches and then we come in with about 10 minutes to go and we talk to them for about six or seven minutes.
“Give credit to our guys. Obviously our upperclassmen got the message across on what we needed to do and how they needed to play better when we were out of the room.”
|“Coach pretty much asked ‘How good do we want to be? Do we want to go home?’” Koenig said.
Whose voice was the loudest?
“I think we were all pretty vocal,” said UW sophomore Sam Dekker. “I wasn’t as vocal this halftime. But Josh was really into it telling us, ‘Hey, let’s go. We’re not losing this game.’“
Gasser called it a “will to win.”
“We wanted to win so bad no matter what it took,” he said. “We weren’t going to give up.”
Gasser, though, didn’t want to take too much credit for what was said at halftime. “We were kind of getting into each other -- as far as the players,” he volunteered.
Junior point guard Traevon Jackson was less willing to share. “What was said at halftime was said at halftime,” he noted. “We responded and I’m proud of my teammates for responding.”
Gard knew what that response had to entail. “We knew that we had to keep them off the free throw line; we fouled them too much,” he said, “and we had to force them into tougher shots.”
Gard then emphasized, “We had to be able to slow them down.”
That’s what upset Gasser because “we didn’t execute the game plan in the first half. They were getting a lot of transition stuff and easy shots and that was something that we had to eliminate.”
The Ducks shot 56 percent in the first half, including 5 of 9 from beyond the 3-point arc. They also outscored the Badgers, 19-2, in transition points. So how do you eliminate that?
“A lot of it is focus,” Gasser explained. “We weren’t focusing on them as much as we were focusing on us. We were focused on making a concerted effort to get back on defense.
“Once they were forced to set up in their half-court offense that was an advantage for us -- to play five-on-five. Obviously, they had played well and we didn’t play as well as we should have.”
But when reserve Duje Dukan scored off an inbounds play on Wisconsin’s final possession of the first half, it not only snapped a 9-0 Oregon run, it gave the Badgers something to build on.
“We knew that we could play better,” said assistant coach Gary Close. “The good news is that we weren’t way down and we could have been.
“We’re down 12 and we know there’s going to be a lot of possessions with the way they play so we’re going to have an opportunity to catch up.”
It was just a matter of shoring up a few things at both ends of the floor and getting the raucous Bradley Center crowd back into the game. It didn’t take long, either.
On the first possession, Dekker shot an airball from the left wing but Jackson grabbed the weakside rebound, scored on the put-back and drew a foul. He set the tempo with his 3-point play.
“I saw the shot coming long,” Jackson said, “and I didn’t want them to get it and score right away. That would have been kind of a punch in the face for us.”
Instead, the Badgers showed that they could punch back. “We really wanted to get after it the first five minutes of the second half,” Gasser said.
Kaminsky scored on a layup and knocked down a jumper to fuel the early momentum. “From there,” he said, “the crowd was back into it, and we were back into it.”
|“I’ve got to credit my teammates for just scrapping and doing what we had to do to win,” Brust said, “because without the offensive rebounds, I wouldn’t get the shot.”
One defensive stop led to another; one made jumper set up the next and the crowd kept getting louder. “We were back in the game,” Gasser said, “and that’s where the confidence came from.”
Added Close, “By that first TV timeout, we were almost even; we got back into it quickly, All of a sudden, it’s a game and the confidence that they had built up is maybe not as strong and vice versa.”
Maybe it was Dukan taking a charge. Maybe it was Gasser, Kaminsky, Jackson and Ben Brust taking and making 3s. Maybe it was just a determined team now taking nothing for granted.
“We made some adjustments during the game and that was huge,” Jackson said. “It has been something that we’ve really been working on.
“We did it against Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament (outscoring the Spartans, 49-40, in the second half). But we just couldn’t finish it out.”
The Badgers exhibited a strong finishing kick in Milwaukee by outscoring the Ducks, 13-5. “It’s a resilient bunch,” said UW assistant coach Lamont Paris. “They never really lost faith at all.”
Oregon led 75-74 when Young made his fourth triple of the night. It came at 2:50. What followed was an extended Wisconsin possession, maybe the most critical possession of the season.
There was a missed jumper by Dekker and a rebound by Kaminsky. There was a missed jumper by Gasser and a rebound by Dekker. There was a missed jumper by Jackson and a rebound by Koenig.
“I just told myself, ‘We’ve got to get this rebound’ and I just went to the rim,” Koenig said. “I chased it down and did whatever I had to do to get it. I guess that I got a lucky bounce.”
The Badgers still had possession of the ball when Ryan called a 30-second timeout. It came at 1:26. Ryan took out Koenig and subbed in Brust -- a fateful and timely decision on his part.
When play resumed, there was a missed shot by Kaminsky and another rebound by Dekker. “Sam was huge in terms of rebounding,” Jackson said. “I’ve never seen him rebound like that.”
What got into Dekker? Did someone say something to him? “I just put that on myself,” he said. “I tried to be more aggressive and get to the glass. When I get more active, I’m much better.”
There were so many offensive rebounds during this sequence that Gard said, “I couldn’t keep track of them all on the bench and I had to ask who got them. It was a flurry.”
It was something they saw in Close’s scouting report on the Ducks’ rebounding tendencies that had them believing that they could hurt Oregon on the glass.
“They do rely on their athleticism defensively,” Close said. “If you work, you’ve got a chance because they’re not into blocking out as much as they are into just going and getting the ball.”
Paris couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “We extended the possession,” he said, “and we extended the possession and then -- boom -- the outcome was what we wanted.”
After Dekker hunted down his second offensive rebound of the possession, he kicked the ball out to Jackson, who swung it quickly on the right wing to Brust, who lowered the boom with a 3-pointer.
“As soon as I let it go, I knew it was going straight through,” said Brust, who became the school’s all-timer leader in triples with the 228th of his career. “That record was something I couldn’t have done without my teammates.”
Brust’s cold-blooded basket -- what would turn out to be the game-winner -- came one minute and 43 seconds after Young had given the Ducks their last lead.
“You’ve got to love teammates who aren’t afraid to take a shot no matter what the situation is,” said Dekker. “Ben is going to stay firing. If he’s 0-for-36, he’s going to think that he’s 10-for-10.”
Brust deflected the praise again. “I’ve got to credit my teammates for just scrapping and doing what we had to do to win,” he said, “because without the offensive rebounds, I wouldn’t get the shot.”
The Badgers made a statement with that extended possession, Gard suggested.
“That’s what this team has been about -- when their backs are against the wall, they just find a way to come out swinging,” he said. “That possession is a microcosm of how this team has been.
“When we need it, we get desperate.”
The Badgers also needed some clutch free throws from Jackson to seal the win.
“He has been in that situation before,” Paris said, “and he wanted to be in that situation. It was a true confidence. It wasn’t a guy posturing telling you he’s going to make it. It was true confidence.”
And it was a true team victory; the sweetest of all, because the Badgers are advancing.
“We showed how good we can be and we showed how bad we can be,” Gasser said. “But when we’re playing well and executing our stuff and playing hard and following the scouting report ….”
They can be very good. And you know what the best thing about that is, Jackson asked of no one in particular. “We’re not done yet,” he said. “We’re ready to keep it going.”