MADISON, Wis. — As brutal as this winter has been in the Upper Midwest, the last month has been especially painful for the Wisconsin Badgers.
After starting the season 16-0 and climbing to No. 3 in the polls, the Badgers fell into a deep freeze, dropping five of six and tumbling out of the Top 25 before righting their ship earlier in the week with a victory at Illinois.
Most frustrating for Wisconsin was losing three consecutive games at the Kohl Center, something that had not happened under head coach Bo Ryan.
The Badgers, though, finally put an end to that dubious streak, as point guard Traevon Jackson nailed a pull-up jumper with 2.1 seconds to play for a 60-58 upset of No. 9 Michigan State on Sunday afternoon.
“We haven’t been able to do (win at home) for three games and it’s left a pretty sour taste in our mouths,” Wisconsin forward Sam Dekker said. “We couldn’t afford to drop another one here.”
The final sequence was eerily similar to a week ago, when Dekker’s 3-point attempt at the buzzer hit iron in a 59-58 loss to Ohio State.
Jackson was to take the final shot in that game, but bobbled his dribble, which was scooped up by Dekker.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo saw the play and wasn’t taking any chances.
“I’ve watched two years worn of Jackson making game-winning shots so I put my best defender on him and he still made it,” Izzo said. “Give him credit, he has the courage to take them.”
Tied at 58-58 after forward Adreian Payne’s 3-pointer, Jackson took the inbounds pass from guard Josh Gasser, brought it up and launched from midrange as time wound down.
“He’s a guy that’s earned that spot,” Ryan said. “His decision-making has been a little sporadic at times but in a last-second situation, if it starts in his hands, I feel very confident that we’re going to get something.”
Dekker had put Wisconsin ahead 43-33 on a 3-pointer with 13:08 left, but the Spartans came back, using an 11-3 run to get within a bucket with 7:33 left.
Guard Ben Brust had missed his first seven 3-point attempts before finally connecting with 3:18 left, giving the Badgers a 55-48 lead.
But again, the Spartans (20-4, 9-2 Big Ten) fought back and finally tied the game at 58-58 when guard Travis Trice found Payne for the game-tying 3.
“We executed that last 3-pointer as well as we’ve executed any play in 10 years,” Izzo said. “Give Payne credit, he hit a big shot being dead tired.”
Forward Nigel Hayes led the Badgers with 14 points on 3 of 5 from the field and is averaging 15.0 points and shooting 74 percent in his last three games.
Hayes has shown an uncanny knack for getting to the free throw line — a main weapon in Ryan’s offense. While Hayes leads the team with 115 attempts, he has only made 58 percent (67) of his shots but was 8-for-12 Sunday.
“Nigel’s a great player and he’s a great free-throw shooter,” Jackson said. “He can get (to the line) so easily. It’s just something you have to develop as a player.”
Free throws were important to the Badgers, who made 13 of 20, as Michigan State went to the line just nine times and made five while shooting 40 percent from the field.
Michigan State guard Gary Harris had an especially rough afternoon. He missed his first 10 shots before finally scoring on a steal and dunk with 17:41 to play.
“I didn’t want to give him anything easy,” said Gasser, who spent most of his afternoon covering Harris. “He got the two fast break dunks in the second half and I was worried that was going to get him going.”
Harris finished with six points on 3-of-20 shooting and was 0-for-7 from beyond the arc.
“He didn’t take the best shots,” Izzo said. “He got a little frustrated but it will be a good learning lesson for him. There were times we just didn’t have anyone else in there that could make shots so the ball got stuck in his hands a lot at critical times.”
Alabama fires head coach Grant
Alabama fired head basketball coach Anthony Grant on Sunday after six seasons.
The Crimson Tide struggled over the final two months of the season, finishing 18-14 and tied for eighth in the Southeastern Conference.
Grant, 48, won at least 20 games three times and made an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2012. His Alabama teams went 117-85, including two NIT appearances (2011 and 2013). He came to Alabama from Virginia Commonwealth University, where he went 76-25 and made two NCAA Tournament appearances.
“This has been a very difficult decision, as I have the highest respect for Anthony as a coach, as a molder of young men, and as a person,” Alabama athletic director Bill Battle said in a statement. “Anthony is a man of impeccable character who has been an excellent representative of our program. He has made tremendous contributions to our program and we always will be grateful for his efforts. Anthony, his wife Chris, and their children have been tremendous assets to our University and our community.
“In this business we are ultimately judged by wins and losses on the court and, for a variety of reasons, we haven’t made satisfactory progress in that area.”
Kentucky routs Arkansas for SEC tourney title
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — No. 1-ranked Kentucky will take a perfect 34-0 record into the NCAA Tournament this week after thrashing Arkansas 78-63 in the Southeastern Conference tournament championship game Sunday at Bridgestone Arena.
The conference tournament title is the 28th for Kentucky, meaning the Wildcats have won more than half of the 55 tournaments.
“This team has a lot of dog in it,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Good, hard fought game. Arkansas is a ranked team, but we kind of did our thing.”
Junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein, who was named tournament MVP, paced Kentucky with a double-double of 15 points and 10 rebounds. It was his first double-double since the Columbia game on Dec. 10.
Cauley-Stein was joined on the all-tournament team by twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison of Kentucky, Michael Qualls of Arkansas and K.T. Harrell of Auburn.
Andrew Harrison, a sophomore guard, scored 15 points. Twin brother Aaron Harrison had 11 points and six assists. Freshman guard Tyler Ulis added eight points and six assists.
Guard Michael Qualls topped No. 21 Arkansas (26-8) with 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting. Forward Bobby Portis had 13 points.
“Our guys came out and scratched and clawed,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “But at the end, I thought their depth and size were hard to overcome. If a team is going to beat them, you’ve got to make shots as well as match their energy.”
The finals pitted the top two seeds in Kentucky and Arkansas, but the Wildcats wasted little time proving that winning the regular season by five games was no fluke. Kentucky roared out to an 8-0 lead within the first two minutes, forcing Anderson to call an early timeout. Point guard Andrew Harrison scored six of the eight on a pair of 3-pointers.
“If the other team is angry, mad, hateful, jealous, the physiology of that is real close to fear,” Calipari said. “When a team comes in that way, if you can just play and that thing turns into fear, you separate yourself. Joy, the love of playing, always beats angry, mean, hateful, jealous.”
Arkansas managed to score five unanswered points after the break and eventually tied the game at 10-10 on a 3-pointer by Portis. The SEC player of the year had missed 16 of his previous 17 shots in the tournament before the basket.
The game was tied 19-19 with 10:18 to play in the first half when Kentucky caught fire, scoring 16 points in 5:05 for a 35-23 lead. Aaron Harrison scored six points during the 16-4 run on a pair of 3-pointers. He also assisted on two dunks by Cauley-Stein and a basket in the paint by sophomore center Dakari Johnson. Freshman center Karl-Anthony Towns accounted for the remaining four points.
All six Kentucky field goals during the run were accompanied by an assist, including three by Aaron Harrison. At the time, Kentucky was shooting 59 percent (13 of 22), including 5 of 6 on three-pointers.
Kentucky went on to expand the lead to 16 points by halftime, 41-25, meaning the Wildcats outscored Arkansas 22-6 over the final 10:18 of the first half.
Cauley-Stein led the way in the first half with eight points and eight rebounds. Aaron Harrison added eight points and six assists. Andrew Harrison scored six points.
Kentucky shots 51.9 percent in the first half, and 12 of the 14 baskets came via assists. The Wildcats were 8-for-8 from the free-throw line.
Arkansas, which never led, shot just 29 percent in the first half. Portis topped the Razorbacks with seven points. Arkansas had just two assists and five turnovers in the first 20 minutes.
In the second half, Arkansas managed to trim Kentucky’s lead from 16 to nine at 48-39 at the 11:55 mark. During that time, Towns picked up his fourth personal foul with 14:07 to play.
“We cut it to nine points in the second half, but we couldn’t get over the hump,” Anderson said.
From that point forward the two teams battled mostly to a draw before Kentucky pulled away late in the half.
Kentucky pushed the lead back 18 points at 6:10 thanks to an 11-2 run.
Kentucky’s largest lead of the game was 21 points, which came with 2:41 to play.
Wisconsin earns top seed after conference tournament win
CHICAGO — The Wisconsin Badgers earned a historic NCAA top seed Sunday, but their approach going forward will be strictly business as usual.
Wisconsin (31-3) beat Michigan State 80-69 in overtime in Sunday’s Big Ten tournament title game to complete a championship sweep and were rewarded with the first No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed in program history.
“I’m sure it will sink in,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. “What we need right now is to get these guys back (home). We have class tomorrow, some of these guys have tests, they’ve got midterms this week. So it will be business as usual for our student-athletes.”
But players like forward Frank Kaminsky, the Big Ten tournament most outstanding player, are pretty pumped up.
“It’s awesome,” Kaminsky said. “First No. 1 seed in program history. That’s an accomplishment in and of itself, but we have a lot of goals and aspirations in the NCAA Tournament. So we’re going to prepare for our first game and be ready we tip the ball up.”
No. 6 ranked Wisconsin, the league’s regular-season champion, claimed the Big Ten’s automatic NCAA berth with the overtime win at the United Center and meets No. 16 Coastal Carolina (24-9) in Friday’s West Region opener in Omaha, Neb.
The overtime outcome was the first in Big Ten tournament history.
Michigan State (23-11) is also tourney bound with a No. 7 seed in the East Region. The Spartans will face Georgia, which is the 10th seed, on Friday in Charlotte, N.C.
Ryan was initially at a loss for words after the Badgers’ dramatic come-from-behind win.
“I’m speechless and that’s hard to do,” he said. “It was the fight in this group, and to do what they did when it seemed like Michigan State couldn’t do anything wrong. I just hope we have something left in us come NCAA Tournament time.”
The Badgers rallied from an 11-point second-half deficit and back into contention late in the game. They then scored 11 unanswered points in overtime behind seven points form forward Nigel Hayes.
Hayes closed with a game-high 25 points and was 12-for-12 from the free throw line. Kaminsky had 19, guard Bronson Koenig finished with 18 while reserve forward Duje Dukan added 11.
Michigan State, making its third title game appearance in four years, was led by forward Branden Dawson and guard Denzel Valentine with 16 apiece while reserve guard Bryn Forbes had 10.
“I thought we played one of the greatest games we’ve ever played for 32, 32 and one-half minutes or 35, 36 minutes,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. “And then we made a couple of mistakes and they made a couple of great shots and that’s the way the game goes.”
Wisconsin trailed 57-46 in the second half when Koenig launched a comeback with a 3-pointer and added another with 4:19 left to give the Badgers a temporary 60-59 lead.
“We were down eleven and they thought they had it in the bag,” Koenig said. “But I kept reminding my teammates that we were never going to give up.”
Guard Lourawls Nairn’s 3-pointer then put Michigan State up 62-60 as the teams exchanged leads three times and tied four times. The last in regulation came on Koenig’s two free throws for a 69-69 deadlock.
A potential game-winning shot by Dawson rolled in and out as regulation time expired.
In the first half, Michigan State outscored Wisconsin 10-5 in the final 3:25 for a 32-31 halftime lead after a half that saw with seven lead changes and five ties. The Spartans opened a 32-28 lead after a turnover by Koenig and a rebound put back by forward Marvin Clark with 25 seconds showing. But Wisconsin narrowed the deficit to 32-31 as Kaminsky hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
It was the Badger’s fifth successful shot from beyond the arc in the half. Wisconsin ended 13-of-26 (50 percent) on 3-point shooting for the game.
NOTES: Sunday’s game was tied 13 times and had 14 lead changes. … The Badgers claimed a 68-61 win in March in the long regular season meeting behind F Frank Kaminsky’s season-high 31 points. … The Badgers’ two previous Big Ten tournament titles came in wins over Illinois in 2004 and 2008. … Wisconsin’s 31 wins match an all-time