Col­lege bas­ket­ball in­side

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY RO­MAN STUBBS ro­man.stubbs@wash­

Iowa State, Vil­lanova cruise to tour­na­ment ti­tles; Wis­con­sin routs North­west­ern in Big Ten semis.

Wis­con­sin se­nior for­ward Nigel Hayes re­stored or­der in a 76-48 dec­i­ma­tion of North­west­ern in the Big Ten semi­fi­nals Satur­day at Ver­i­zon Cen­ter, but not with­out a lit­tle luck.

Hayes couldn’t help but grin after his first three-point at­tempt of the sec­ond half clanked off the rim be­fore fall­ing through the net. It was ex­actly the kind of bounce that eluded his team dur­ing a late-sea­son stretch of five losses in six games.

“I’ll al­ways take that. That’s prob­a­bly a prod­uct of us do­ing things the right way, lis­ten­ing to the coaches, play­ing to­gether as a team, hav­ing fun,” said Hayes, who fin­ished with 18 points and 10 re­bounds to help the Badgers ad­vance to Sun­day’s cham­pi­onship game against Michi­gan, which beat Min­nesota, 84-77, in the other semi­fi­nal. “When we’re play­ing on both ends of the court, play­ing to­gether and hav­ing fun, we can be pretty good.”

The Badgers (25-8) cer­tainly were Satur­day, which Hayes chalked up to the “bas­ket­ball gods” bless­ing a re­fo­cused and re­laxed group.

“They can pun­ish you when you’re not do­ing well,” Hayes said af­ter­ward when speak­ing about his team’s strug­gles through Fe­bru­ary and into early March, which be­gan with hum­bling loss to North­west­ern (2311) at home on Feb. 12. That win was con­sid­ered a cru­cial check­point on the Wild­cats’ path to their first NCAA tour­na­ment ap­pear­ance, which is ex­pected to be­come a re­al­ity when the field is an­nounced Sun­day.

But the no­tion that North­west­ern — mak­ing its first ap­pear­ance in the Big Ten semi­fi­nals — could some­how up­stage the Badgers again? That was quickly squashed Satur­day as Wis­con­sin thor­oughly atoned for that pre­vi­ous loss with im­pres­sive play on both the in­te­rior and perime­ter.

Sopho­more cen­ter Ethan Happ bruised his way to 16 points and eight re­bounds — the Badgers held a 37-27 ad­van­tage on the boards — and se­niors Bron­son Koenig, Zak Showal­ter and Vitto Brown each hit two three-point­ers apiece on an af­ter­noon in which Wis­con­sin hit 12 of 29 from deep. That fol­lowed a 10-for-22 three-point shoot­ing per­for­mance in Fri­day night’s 70-60 win over In­di­ana in the quar­ter­fi­nals.

“I don’t know if we needed it, but it’s def­i­nitely nice to have a cou­ple of games where you can come to­gether and have fun play­ing,” Koenig said of his team, which shot 47.4 per­cent from the field Satur­day.

Wis­con­sin de­voted it­self to the de­fen­sive end, hold­ing North­west­ern to a sea­son-low point to­tal on a pal­try 34.8 per­cent shoot­ing. The Wild­cats had just one as­sist in the first 31 min­utes and fin­ished with just five against 12 turnovers.

“We never lost faith in what we were do­ing . . . . There weren’t any rad­i­cal changes, any­thing out­side the box,” Wis­con­sin Coach Greg Gard said of his team’s late-sea­son slump, which in­cluded a 64-58 loss to Michi­gan on Feb. 16. “It was just, ‘Let’s get back to do­ing what we do re­ally well. Let’s try to im­prove upon it.’ That was specif­i­cally on the de­fen­sive end.”

And then there was Hayes, who badly missed his first two jumpers be­fore find­ing a rhythm. Hayes has not been the ob­vi­ous star he was ex­pected to be when he was named the Big Ten’s pre­sea­son player of the year back in October — he was named third-team all-con­fer­ence ear­lier this week — but he again proved to be part of the back­bone of a team that re­turned nearly ev­ery­one from last sea­son’s Sweet 16 run.

With Happ an­chor­ing the in­te­rior and both Showal­ter and Koenig run­ning the back­court, Hayes picked his spots ac­cord­ingly. Per­haps one of his best of­fen­sive plays of the night came when he posted up and flipped a pass from the high post to Happ on the block. Happ fin­ished the layup and com­pleted the three­p­oint play after be­ing fouled to push the lead to 15 with just over two min­utes re­main­ing in the first half.

North­west­ern would never get closer. By that point, Hayes looked his team­mates in the eyes and told them they had done the big things to get a large lead. Now they needed to do the lit­tle things to ex­tend it. The re­sult was the most lop­sided win for the pro­gram in Big Ten tour­na­ment his­tory, and a sev­enth ap­pear­ance in the ti­tle game. Against the blis­ter­ing hot Wolver­ines on Sun­day, Hayes and his team­mates will have yet an­other chance to prove that they’re back in form.

“It’s huge for us, def­i­nitely,” Hayes said, “to see what we can do, what we’re ca­pa­ble of when we’re play­ing well.”

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