Heading into their third-round tournament matchup against the Commodores, the Wisconsin Badgers drew up a concise and aggressive game plan.
“Our whole philosophy is to try to run guys off the (3-point) line and not let them get going,” said junior guard Mike Bruesewitz. “We have to make sure we take that away and force them into two-point jump shots.”
For 40 minutes on Saturday, the Badgers executed head coach Bo Ryan’s game plan to perfection. Vanderbilt made just 5-of-19 attempts from beyond the arc, the team’s fourth lowest percentage this season.
And with six seconds remaining, junior John Jenkins couldn’t hit his final 3-point attempt of the game — one that would have put the Commodores up by one.
“If you asked me what I was hoping to get in the play, what you saw was exactly what I was hoping for,” said Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings. “We’d run the same play again if we had it to do over again.”
Wisconsin led by as many as nine in the contest, but the Badgers only managed to come away with a 60-57 victory over Vanderbilt, a win that advances them to the Sweet 16 for the second straight year.
“If you look at (Wisconsin) statistically, they’re very good at defending the three,” Stallings said. “You try to get some good looks against them, we got some, some we didn’t.”
Vanderbilt outrebounded Wisconsin 35-30, but the Badgers grabbed perhaps two of the game’s most crucial offensive boards — coming with 52 and 20 seconds remaining in the game — allowing Wisconsin to drain precious seconds off the clock.
“Long shots produce long rebounds,” said Vanderbilt center Festus Ezeli. “We just didn’t come up with the ball.”
Five Wisconsin players scored in double digits, and point guard Jordan Taylor spearheaded the Badger offensive attack with 14 points. Wisconsin opened the game on a 10-2 run, during which forward Ryan Evans scored eight of his 11 points.
“All of our players are opportunistic,” Ryan said of Evans’ performance. “You just have to be ready to take what the defense gives you.”
Vanderbilt was able to rebound from its sluggish start by the end of the half, and for the second consecutive game, point guard Brad Tinsley hit a three as time expired. The Badgers took a one-point, 32-31 lead into the locker room after 20 minutes of play.
Ezeli was not in Vanderbilt’s starting lineup, but the center’s play was crucial in helping the Commodores out of their early deficit. Ezeli posted the game’s lone double-double performance, grabbing 11 rebounds to pair with a team-high 14 points.
Senior Jeff Taylor was relatively silent in the first half, picking up two quick fouls that forced Stallings to limit the forward’s early minutes.
“When you start off the game like that and you have to kind of play spot minutes, it’s tough to get into the rhythm of the game,” Taylor said.
Taylor scored all nine of his points in the second half, and his first basket of the game gave Vanderbilt its first and largest lead, just 18 seconds into the second half. The Commodores would lead just twice throughout the game’s entirety, never holding an advantage greater than one point.
Wisconsin was able to build a nine-point lead with just 6:44 remaining in the contest, taking advantage of a string of three turnovers and four missed shots by the Commodores. But Vanderbilt countered with an 11-3 run to cut the Wisconsin advantage to 56-55 with just over three minutes left in regulation.
After a Wisconsin timeout, Ezeli put the Commodores back up by one for their second and final lead of the game, when the center blocked a jumper by Berggren and hit a layup at the other end.
However, four points from the Badgers in the game’s final two minutes would put a victory just out of reach for the Commodores.
Vanderbilt made 43.5 percent of its attempts from the field, but the Commodores’ leading scorers, Jenkins and Taylor, struggled to find their shots early and late. The pair shot a combined 7-of-25 from the field against Wisconsin.
“Things like that just happen in basketball,” Taylor said. “The ball isn’t always going to bounce your way, but I felt like I got really good looks.”
The Commodores finish the season with a 25-11 record, advancing past their opening game of the tournament for the first time since 2007.
“We’re very disappointed to have not won,” Stallings said. “We had some opportunities there at the end, and they made a few more plays than we did.”