NEW YORK — For 19 seasons, it was a faithful companion, arriving every March and occasionally providing joy into April for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball program and its followers.
There were moments of heartbreak along the way, to be sure, but the good memories outweighed the bad. At the very least, there almost always was optimism at the start, that first glance of the bracket on Selection Sunday providing hope that a run to Sweet Sixteen — hey, maybe even the Final Four — was possible.
Not this year. Let the record show one of the most remarkable achievements in program history took its last breath at 2 p.m. EST on Friday. Michigan State played the role of grim reaper, ending the Badgers’ season with a 63-60 victory in a Big Ten tournament quarterfinal at Madison Square Garden.
RIP, NCAA tournament streak (1999-2017).
“It stings,” UW freshman guard Brad Davison said. “I came here and I wanted to be a part of that Wisconsin tradition. You feel like you kind of let people down.”
Davison had a chance to send the game to overtime but missed a 3-pointer in the closing seconds. Afterward, he was crying as he left the court, his face buried in UW coach Greg Gard’s shoulder as the two walked together.
“Today and in the last month, we’ve proved that we’re an NCAA tournament team and that’s what makes it sting even more,” said Davison, who was just as emotional in the locker room during postgame interviews. “It’s just unfortunate we didn’t turn it around sooner. But if you look at what we have coming back, we’re going to be a great team next year.”
Sophomore swingman Miles Bridges scored 20 points and sophomore point guard Cassius Winston had 17 points to lead the Spartans, the top seed in this event and the second-ranked team in the nation. Junior guard Matt McQuaid hit a big shot late in the game that helped Michigan State (29-3) into the semifinal round, where it will play fifth-seeded Michigan today.
The ninth-seeded Badgers, eager to avenge two regular-season losses to Michigan State, got a game-high 22 points from junior center Ethan Happ.
For the second time in six days, UW pushed the Spartans to the limit. But Michigan State, just as it did in a 68-63 win at the Kohl Center on Sunday, simply was too tough to take down.
“That’s twice we played the No. 2 team — I’d argue they’re the No. 1 team in the country — and we played them tight,” UW sophomore guard Brevin Pritzl said. “We were right there.”
As with any heartbreaking defeat to end the season — and this program has had plenty of them over the years — the Badgers (15-18) head home with plenty of what ifs that will eat at them throughout the offseason.
Happ sat the final 7 minutes, 46 seconds of the first half in foul trouble, and Davison joined him on the bench for the final 3:45. Both players picked up their second fouls on debatable calls.
UW was outscored 16-8 after Happ left the game. Without Happ and Davison, Michigan State outscored the Badgers 10-3.
“Looking at the frickin’ stats and I got 26 minutes, which I’m very frustrated with,” Happ said. “I think the Big Ten refs do a great job, but I just felt like my hands were up. … I’ll definitely look back at that one. I think if I’m in there for a longer period of time, it might be a different game.”
The outcome also might have been different if the Badgers did a better job of rebounding. Michigan State finished with a 41-27 cushion in that category, including 16-10 on the offensive glass.
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The Spartans grabbed 13 offensive rebounds in the second half alone. UW’s defensive rebounding percentage after halftime was an abysmal 35.0 percent.
“It takes the steam out of a possession when you give up big offensive rebounds,” Pritzl said. “So this offseason, we have to get a lot more physical, bigger, stronger.”
Missed free throws contributed to the defeat as well. The Badgers finished 2 of 6 from the line, with junior swingman Khalil Iverson and Happ combining for three misses in a row as Michigan State was clinging to a 60-58 lead late in the game.
After Happ missed the front end of a one-and-one, McQuaid made it hurt by burying a 3-pointer from the left wing to give the Spartans a 63-58 lead with 1:28 remaining.
Davison scored on a drive to make it a one-possession game, and Bridges cooperated by missing a free throw to give UW a chance to tie it.
In the huddle during a timeout, Gard called a play to get UW redshirt freshman forward Aleem Ford, who made three 3-pointers in the second half, open beyond the arc. The backup plan was Davison hitting Happ for a quick two-point basket after a slip screen.
Michigan State busted both of those options by switching on screens, which left Davison at the top of the key with congestion all around him. As the clock ran out, he forced up a 3-pointer that was well short and fell into the hands of McQuaid.
“It was a good play call, but credit them for a good defensive adjustment,” said Davison, who finished 4 of 14 from the field. “They hadn’t really been switching anything. I’ve got to make a play at that point.”
While the death certificate officially was stamped Friday, the Badgers’ NCAA tournament hopes had been on life support for three months.
The 2017-18 season ended exactly 16 weeks after it began with hopes UW, even after replacing four starters, would be good enough to keep its streak going. There were enough positive signs during an August trip to Australia and New Zealand, and during exhibition play, to produce optimism that the Badgers would extend their run to 20 seasons.
That hope began to fade after some close losses early in the season, and especially in early December when sophomore point guard D’Mitrik Trice (foot) and freshman wing Kobe King sustained what turned out to be season-ending injuries.
Some more close losses followed in early January, the start of a stretch in which UW lost eight times in nine games. By that point, it became apparent the only way the Badgers still would be playing in mid-March and beyond was winning the Big Ten tournament.
After a late-season surge, they arrived in New York believing they could pull off the unthinkable, winning four games in as many days.
That dream ended at the hands of Spartans, who will extend their own NCAA tournament streak to 21 seasons.
“It’s tough to get in the NCAA tournament,” Happ said. “I took things for granted on winning teams my past three years here, I’m sure fans have taken that for granted as well. Because it’s not easy, it’s only (68) teams out of how many they are. Obviously, we’re disappointed that we couldn’t keep it alive, but it’s not for lack of effort.”