Bo didn’t do it.
Dick Bennett? Nope.
Stu Jackson? Cold.
Bud Foster? Colder.
Peel away the iron cojones of Vitto Brown; the ice in Bronson Koenig’s veins where blood should be. Peel away the sheer will of Nigel Hayes and the joy and the insanity and the hugs and the awesome of the 65-62 win against No. 1 seed Villanova in the NCAA Tournament, and you eventually turn up this little nugget:
Greg Gard is the first coach in Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball history to ever reach the Sweet 16 in each of his first two attempts.
A club of one.
And of Gard’s 42 victories over his first 59 games in Madison since taking the baton from Bo Ryan in December 2015, the second he’ll take home from this weekend just might be the sweetest.
Because the man coached circles around ‘Nova coach Jay Wright, a man with two Final Fours and a 2016 NCAA title on his business card. He did laps around the bench that brought the reigning national champions to the table, a roster with more fight than a pack of starving wolves.
● Despite treating the free-throw line with an almost reckless disdain, missing 9 of 16 attempts, the Badgers dance on.
● Despite making just 2 of 7 from beyond the arc in the second half, Bucky just blew up your bracket into tiny little pieces.
● Despite Koenig and Ethan Happ playing with 4 fouls each in the final 2 minutes of a tie game, Mad City is prepping for its sixth Sweet 16 in seven seasons.
Most chess players would throw up their hands at that point. Most experienced magicians would be scrambling to hang on to their hats, let alone pull a rabbit out of one in crunch time.
We’d wondered whatever became of Brown, the senior forward who’d planted the flag in the first half (9 points on 3 treys) but had been rarely seen in the second — until it mattered. Until Wildcats guard Josh Hart took the ball, and fate, in his hands, 5 seconds left, down 2 … only to find Brown with both mitts squarely in his bread basket.
It was Gard who steadied the ship when Koenig, his senior sharpshooter, got slapped with his fourth foul at the 13:41 mark of the second half with the contest was tied at 37-all.
Over the next 3:46, the ‘Cats went on an 11-6 run as Donte DiVincenzo (15 points, 3 treys) got hot and Hart (19 points) got space. It was an uphill climb from there, and yet the Badgers never let the deficit get larger than 7 points. Wisconsin (27-9) capped a 7-0 run on Koenig’s second trey of the day to tie the game at 57-57 with 3:28 on the clock.
That the Badgers salvaged the final word in a contest with more swings than an Adam Jones at-bat was remarkable enough. ‘Nova (32-4) had started slow in its Thursday opener, a habit Wisconsin was more than happy to enable again. Of the Wildcats’ first six possessions, the Badgers allowed one field goal and forced three turnovers.
Koenig, pursued by ‘Nova bigs, pulled them outside and let fly. Hayes, if posted by a smaller Wildcats wing player, didn’t hesitate to back him into the lane. The Badgers’ best track was to congest the lane and make ‘Nova as one dimensional as possible — even if that dimension is a beast. Wisconsin dominated on first-half points in the paint, 14-4, despite losing Happ for the rest of the period after his second foul with 11:49 to go.
It takes a village.
It takes a pilot.
Skeptics would say the Badgers, with so many seniors as the backbone, are a car that can basically parallel park itself. And yet Gard is the one who has to program the GPS, week after week.
The one who has to manage the how and the when with Happ (12 points, 8 boards), a brilliant player but mercurial free-throw shooter, late in nail-biters such as Saturday’s.
The one charged with managing expectations and egos, the one tasked with making certain his kids think no mountain is ever too big for them to scale, even with Kilimanjaro staring them dead in the face.
Or, in this case, ‘Nova.
ESPN.com reported that Wright, before the game, told Gard he couldn’t believe the Badgers got stuck by the selection committee with an 8 seed. Join the club. And the bandwagon.
Line forms at the front. Next stop: Manhattan.