Badgers’ ‘clutch gene’ inspires confidence
Zak Showalter saw the shot go up and prepared for the worst, crashing the glass so he could grab an offensive rebound in case of a miss. As he was doing so, the senior guard for the University of Wisconsin men s basketball team couldn t help but think he was wasting his time. As the 3-point shot released by senior forward Nigel Hayes hung in the air for more than a second, Showalter was confident it would end up falling through the bottom of the net. It did, of course, a clutch shot with 18.6 seconds remaining in overtime that helped the No. 7 Badgers escape with a 70-69 victory at Nebraska on Thursday night. It was delivered by a player who, to that point, was shooting 29.8 percent from beyond the arc and had 16 misses in 20 attempts since the start of Big Ten Conference play.
Those numbers might suggest Showalter is an eternal optimist for his supreme confidence in Hayes shot, but there was another dynamic at play: It was overtime and, based on past experiences, the Badgers had every right to believe they were going to find a way to win. When Wisconsin (21-3, 10-1 Big Ten) hosts Northwestern (18-6, 7-4) today at the Kohl Center, Showalter, Hayes and Co. would prefer to take care of business in regulation. But if the game extends another five minutes or longer, if necessary the odds are in the Badgers favor. Hayes wasn t even aware that Wisconsin is 8-0 in overtime games since he arrived on campus in a recruiting class that included fellow senior starters Bronson Koenig and Vitto Brown.
It s a streak that began with a 64-63 overtime win over Arizona in the 2014 NCAA tournament, a victory that clinched the first of back-to-back Final Four appearances for the Badgers. Seven wins during the run have come away from the Kohl Center. The streak includes the postseason win against the Wildcats and one against Michigan State in the 2015 Big Ten tournament.
I had no idea about all that, I haven t paid attention to it, Hayes said. I ve been fortunate to be on teams with older guys who ve been there, veterans. Now I m one of those veterans.
It will get done
Going back even further, Wisconsin is 11-1 in overtime games since late in the 2011-12 season. Badgers associate head coach Lamont Paris doesn t think that run has been built by accident, pointing to another run of success on the program s resume: Wisconsin has won 33 consecutive games when leading or tied with 5 minutes to play in regulation and is 155-5 in those situations dating to February of 2011. The pillars of Wisconsin s program taking good shots, solid defense, ball security have led to success in close games. But Paris thinks there s more to it than that.
I think the biggest thing personally is that belief in yourselves and what the outcome will be, Paris said. I think our guys believe, one way or another, they don t know who will make the play, who will take the shot, who will take the charge, who will dive on the floor, who gets the blocked shot. I don t think they know who will do it, (but) I believe they honestly believe it will happen, it will get done.
Is there luck involved? Sure. A streak like this doesn t happen if a team doesn t catch a few breaks, whether it s a call or two from an official along the way or a banked-in 3-pointer like the one Koenig produced at Nebraska. But there probably weren t a lot of racing heartbeats inside the five Wisconsin players who took the floor for the start of overtime at Nebraska because, other than redshirt freshman guard Brevin Pritzl in place of Brown, it was a group that had won four overtime games since the start of the 2015-16 season.
It s like, We ve been here before, this is nothing new, Showalter said. I think that helps in any situation in life: If you ve done something before, you get that sense of comfort and it just feels natural for us.
Or, as Hayes put it, it s knowing how to win. Hayes believes the fact the game slows down in pressure-packed situations for experienced players helps the Badgers, who typically have rosters anchored by seniors. He cites an example from the Nebraska game that involved Ethan Happ, who is only a sophomore but already has 59 career starts under his belt.
As Nebraska star guard Tai Webster was driving to the rim with a chance to erase Wisconsin s one-point lead in the closing seconds, Happ was the last line of defense. If Happ backs off to avoid his fifth foul, Webster has an easier shot. If Happ is too aggressive and swings wildly at the ball, he risks a foul that would send Webster to the line. Instead, Happ s defense was perfect: He kept his hands mostly straight up and blocked the shot. Even better, he grabbed the rebound and called a timeout before he was fouled or fell out of bounds.
That s the sequence of a winning play right there, Hayes said. One of the notable things about Wisconsin s three overtime victories this season it beat Minnesota, Rutgers and Nebraska in a span of 20 days is that the Badgers efficiency numbers on offense have been through the roof. They are averaging a remarkable 1.696 points per possession after regulation in those games.
The Badgers are shooting 60.0 percent overall and 83.3 percent (5 of 6) from 3-point range in overtime this season, with one turnover in 23 possessions. The Badgers struggled offensively in two of those games Rutgers and Nebraska before flipping the script in overtime. When Nebraska s Michael Jacobson hit a 3-pointer with 0.3 seconds remaining to force overtime, the Badgers shrugged their shoulders and looked on the bright side of things.
We were like, All right, good, now we ve got five minutes to actually show we can play basketball. Can we use these five minutes to make up for the 40 lackluster minutes we just played? Hayes said. There was never a doubt that we were going to (win) the game. Which is why Showalter had every reason to believe Hayes shot late against Nebraska was going in and there would be no offensive rebound to corral.
This team has a clutch gene, hopefully, that we can keep capitalizing on, Showalter said. We re going to need that down the road.