In the classic comedy “Stripes,” while planning a rescue mission to save the members of their army unit who mistakenly ended up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, Bill Murray’s John Winger says to Harold Ramis’ reluctant Russell Ziskey, “C’mon, it’s Czechoslovakia. We zip in, we pick ‘em up, we zip right out again. We’re not going to Moscow. It’s Czechoslovakia. It’s like going to Wisconsin.”
Ziskey counters with, “Well, I got the (crap) kicked out of me in Wisconsin once.”
Villanova would have been wise to heed Ziskey’s warning about going through Wisconsin. The eighth-seeded Badgers didn’t kick the crap out of Villanova, but it probably feels that way to the Wildcats, who were denied a trip to the Sweet 16 and saw their aspirations of repeating as national champions evaporate with a 65-62 defeat in the second round of the East Regional in Buffalo.
Villanova, the top seed in the tournament, was eliminated before the Sweet 16 as a No. 1 or 2 seed for the fourth time in the past eight seasons. The Wildcats’ were certainly complicit in their early demise. They struggled through a poor first half, just as they did during their first-round victory over Mt. St. Mary’s. As the Wildcats found out, Wisconsin is not Mt. St. Mary’s. Even with stars Ethan Happ and Bronson Koenig in foul trouble throughout the game, Wisconsin proved to be a difficult opponent.
The Wildcats (32-4) appeared to take control when they increased their lead to 57-50, forcing a Wisconsin timeout with 5:16 remaining. But the Badgers went on a 12-2 run to take a 62-59 lead. The Badgers took the three-point lead on a 3-pointer by Koenig off a designed play in which he made the inbounds pass and then accepted the return pass on the right wing.
Villanova erased that three-point deficit on a tough inside move by point guard Jalen Brunson (11 points) and a free throw by Donte DiVincenzo (15 points), who made one of two free throws with 36.4 seconds remaining.
After taking its final timeout with 20.3 seconds remaining, Wisconsin, instead of putting the ball in the hands of Happ (12 points in 23 foul-plagued minutes) or Koenig (17 points in 27 minutes), put the ball in senior forward Nigel Hayes’ hands. Hayes (19 points) drove to the baseline on Mikal Bridges and made a nice left-handed reverse layup for a 64-62 lead with 11.4 seconds remaining.
Josh Hart, the Big East Player of the Year, matched Hayes’ 19 points, but he couldn’t match him in the final 20 seconds. Following a Villanova timeout, Hart drove to the basket. Happ held his ground and Vitto Brown reached in and grabbed the basketball. After DiVincenzo fouled Brown, he made 1 of 2 free throws, but all Villanova could manage was a desperation one-handed toss by Brunson from beyond midcourt. Brunson’s shot had no shot.
Wisconsin performed better than Villanova during the game’s final five minutes, but the Wildcats will look back at the previous 35 minutes as a series of missed opportunities.
Despite Happ drawing his second foul with 11:49 remaining in the first half, Villanova scrambled to stay with the Badgers for the entire first half. In fact, the Badgers, who already had a nine-point run after Hart scored the game’s first three points, scored eight straight points after Happ picked up his second foul, turning a 12-12 tie into a 20-12 lead.
For the second consecutive game, Villanova endured shooting difficulties during the first half. Other than Hart, who, along with DiVincenzo, carried the Wildcats during the first half, Villanova’s starters made just 1 of 14 shots before halftime.
The Wildcats trailed by four points at halftime, but had another golden opportunity early in the second half. Barely five minutes into the second half, Happ headed back to the bench after picking up his third foul with Wisconsin clinging to a 37-35 lead. Koenig, who picked up his third foul three minutes into the second half, re-entered the game, only to pick up his fourth foul moments later, with the scored tied at 37 with 13:41 remaining. Koenig didn’t return until there was 5:43 remaining.
DiVincenzo immediately took advantage of Koenig, lofting a 3-pointer from the top of the key, knowing that Koenig wouldn’t challenge the shot. DiVincenzo’s 3-pointer increased the lead to 57-50, but that was the highwater mark for Villanova.
As hard as they tried, there were no more heroics left in Villanova’s bag. Kris Jenkins, the hero of last year’s title-clinching victory over North Carolina, made just 2 of 9 shots from the field and finished with six points. Hart’s final two drives to the basket resulted in a traveling violation and a steal.
Villanova was able to overcome first-half deficits in recent games against Seton Hall (Big East semifinals) and Mt. St. Mary’s, but it wasn’t able to do so against a tough, experienced and patient Wisconsin team.
Fans who looked at the East Region and saw a clear path for Villanova to an Elite Eight meeting with Duke should have heeded Russell Ziskey’s warning.
Going through Wisconsin can be a difficult road to travel.