WASHINGTON — The epitaph for the Big Ten portion of the 2016-17 University of Wisconsin men’s basketball season can be summed up in two words.
That was the grim reality facing the No. 24 Badgers on Sunday after they watched Michigan celebrate a conference tournament championship at Verizon Center.
Senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. finished with 22 points and seven assists to earn Most Outstanding Player honors and lead the Wolverines to a 71-56 victory over UW in the title game.
The Badgers arrived in the nation’s capital hoping to collect some hardware after a late-season slide cost them a shot at winning the Big Ten regular-season title. UW finished in a second-place tie with Maryland in the standings.
As streamers dropped all around them Sunday while they were leaving the floor, senior forward Nigel Hayes and Co. were trying to come to grips with another runner-up finish.
“We just gave away our second championship this year,” Hayes said. “It’s literally now or never. We’re only guaranteed one game from here on out.”
That game will come Thursday, when the Badgers (25-9) meet Virginia Tech (22-10) in an NCAA tournament opener. UW is a No. 8 seed, at least two spots worse than it expected.
It was just one more disappointment for the Badgers to negotiate on a day that began with high hopes.
“We had it in the forefront of our mind that we were going to go get a championship today,” UW senior guard Zak Showalter said. “We’re a little down right now, but we’ll bounce back.”
UW entered the title game on a roll. It had won three consecutive games by an average margin of 18.3 points, including victories over Indiana and Northwestern to open this tournament.
The Badgers trailed 33-32 at the half, but their offense never got going after halftime.
Senior point guard Bronson Koenig led the Badgers with 15 points, while Hayes and sophomore center Ethan Happ each had 14 points and 11 rebounds. All three players were named to the all-tournament team, which was little consolation after another one of the team’s major goals went by the wayside.
“It hurts to have so many ups and downs in the regular season, then have two really good games (here) and then take a step backward almost,” Happ said.
Michigan (24-11) deserves credit for completing an amazing run of four victories in as many days.
The Wolverines’ Big Ten tournament experience began with their charter flight skidding off the runway on Wednesday, delaying the team’s arrival until a few hours before their opener against Illinois on Thursday.
Michigan started the tournament as a No. 8 seed and ended it looking down at the other 13 teams in the conference.
“Going into March Madness, the NCAA tournament, we’ve got a lot of confidence,” Walton said. “We think we’re a really dynamic team. We can score in a lot of different ways. We think we pose a huge threat against other teams.”
UW certainly can attest. Freshman forward D.J. Wilson had 17 points and senior swingman Zak Irvin added 15 for the Wolverines, who shot 56.3 percent overall and went 10 of 23 from 3-point range.
Irvin came off a screen and made a 3-pointer with 5 minutes, 45 seconds remaining after UW had cut Michigan’s lead to 51-45. Two possessions later, junior swingman Duncan Robinson had the exact same answer to a basket by Hayes.
The Wolverines were full of energy from the opening tip to the final buzzer, even after their long haul through the tournament that included wins over Illinois, top-seeded Purdue and fourth-seeded Minnesota.
The second-seeded Badgers failed to match that vigor.
“There were times,” UW coach Greg Gard said, “that we looked like the team that was playing four games in four days.”
What killed the Badgers’ title hopes was a terrible stretch on offense coming out of halftime.
UW went without a field goal for the opening 8:08 of second half. The only two points the Badgers managed in their first 10 possessions after halftime came on two free throws from Hayes.
Turnovers and missed opportunities around the rim – issues that have plagued UW at times this season – were a problem once again.
The Badgers had nine turnovers in 32 possessions after halftime. Unofficially, they were 5 of 16 on shots in the paint in the second half.
“If you’re not finishing in the paint, then you’re relying a lot on jump shots,” said Happ, who was 6 of 16 from the field. “It’s not a recipe for a win.”
The Badgers’ next defeat will end their season. They landed in the difficult East Region, which includes defending national champion Villanova, Duke, Baylor, Florida and Virginia.
Big Ten play ended with the Badgers lamenting two missed opportunities to add hardware to the program’s trophy case. The only way to forget those letdowns would be to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
“We wouldn’t be the first team,” Hayes said, “to do something incredible without having won a conference championship or a tournament one.”