NEW YORK — Beep. Beep. Beep.
Did you hear that? The Streak just started breathing again. Softly. Faintly.
“When you do the little things right, those final possessions can really turn things around,” Wisconsin freshman point guard Brad Davison said after the Badgers held off Maryland 59-54 on Thursday at the Big Ten Tournament. “And everyone sticks around and gets things done at the end.”
Beep. Beep. Beep.
Wisconsin’s been going to NCAA Tournaments for pretty much as long as Davison’s young existence, 19 years straight now, a fixture of March for a generation. With a record of 15-17, the only path the Badgers can take now is the long road, the hard road, the win-four-games-in-four-days road. The mountain road.
And the next hill is the Big Ten’s steepest: top-seeded Michigan State (28-3) in the quarterfinals on Friday afternoon.
“We’ve got five guys, and they have five guys,” said Wisconsin guard Khalil Iverson, whose steal with 5 seconds left sealed the win on Thursday. “We aren’t going to back down because of what everyone says on the outside.”
The two squads met last Sunday in Madison. Michigan State, the league’s outright regular-season champion, scratched and clawed out a 68-63 victory.
“They’re a terrific team, they’re two-deep at every position, they’re very talented,” Badgers coach Greg Gard said. “[They] have obviously been playing very well. So we know we’ll have to play really, really well.”
Better than Thursday, surely. The Badgers went 9 minutes, 20 seconds in the first half without a field goal, ordinarily a surefire method for going home from a tourney early. Brevin Pritzl’s trey 13 seconds before halftime helped stem the bleeding from a 12-4 Maryland run, putting Wisconsin up 28-24.
“You’ve got to muck it up a little bit,” said Pritzl, who finished with 10 points and 6 boards. “That’s the biggest thing.
“If you can grind out wins, that’s when you know you’re in a good place. If you can defend and keep guys down to no points, that’s huge. That gives you a chance to win every time.”
Oh, they can grind, all right. Davison was slapped with this third foul with 14:43 to go in the contest, which took some of the defensive chutzpah out of his game and gave a Maryland back court that thrives on space some much-needed oxygen.
When star forward Ethan Happ is off the floor, the Badgers offense limps. When Happ and Davison are gone in the same window, it crawls.
But a cast of postseason veterans — Iverson (six NCAA tourney games) and Pritzl (two Big Dance appearances) chief among them — helped to carry the flag across this particular line.
The stars continued to do the bulk of the lifting, fortunately, especially late. A .561 foul shooter during the last three seasons, Happ was money at the charity stripe, draining 6 of 7 and 4 of 4 during the final 10 minutes.
The Badgers were 20 of 24 at the free-throw line, knocking down 14 of 16 in the second half.
Tournaments are for closers.
And for tempo setters.
The plan for Maryland (19-14) was to try to keep the foot on the gas. With football coach Paul Chryst watching from the crowd, the Badgers, by contrast, took a few pages from Bucky’s formula on the gridiron: hellacious defense, control the pace, and, for pity’s sake, don’t beat yourself. Limit possessions to the point where an 8-point cushion feels like 15.
To wit: When Bucky opponents score fewer than 60, Wisconsin has a 6-2 record this season and is 26-4 all time under Gard.
Stodgy and stingy won’t make the nightly highlight reels, but it’s a hell of a way to keep dancing.
That and pro talent. Wisconsin is loaded with kids forced to learn on the fly. Sparty is loaded with kids for whom NBA teams are currently tanking.
There is a difference, but there is no intimidation factor, no fear.
Respect, yes. But no fear.
“I think we can go with what we have,” Iverson noted. “[We] went toe-to-toe with them [the last] game. I think we just have to put together 40 minutes of playing hard and playing the way we know how to play, and I think we’ll be good.”
After all, last year in this tournament Michigan stormed from the 8-9 game — once the Wolverines thankfully landed in one piece, of course — all the way to the Big Ten title.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
“Hopefully,” Gard said, “we’ve got a lot more basketball left to play.”
The Streak knows what time it is. During a break in the trains passing beneath Madison Square Garden, you almost could make out a heartbeat, still.
Old habits die hard. March veterans die harder.