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Wisconsin dumps VT, earns matchup with ‘Nova

Wisconsin Badgers guard Bronson Koenig (24) passes the ball against Virginia Tech Hokies guard Seth Allen (4) in the second half during the first round of the NCAA Tournament Thursday night at KeyBank Center. Wisconsin won 84-74. (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)

The Sports Xchange

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Every time Virginia Tech threatened, Wisconsin had an answer.

Usually in the form of Bronson Koenig.

After all, what is a senior guard supposed to do in the NCAA Tournament except set the bar higher?

With many of his career-high 28 points coming in clutch situations, Koenig helped No. 8 Wisconsin advance to the second round Thursday night, surviving a strong challenge from No. 9 Virginia Tech 84-74 at the KeyBank Center.

Koenig, a 6-foot-4 senior guard out of La Crosse, set a career high with eight 3-pointers on a career-most 17 attempts. He hit the 20-point mark for the 10th time this season but did so for the first time in eight games, dating back to a 27-point outing against Ohio State on Feb. 23 that had represented his previous high.

“I don’t think I shot all that well, to be honest, looking at my numbers,” Koenig said. “But I knew the way they were going to play defense ... that I was going to be able to get some open looks.”

The Badgers (26-9) take on the East Region’s No. 1 seed, Villanova, on Saturday. The defending national champion Wildcats struggled early against No. 16 seed Mount St. Mary’s before pulling away in the second half for a 76-56 victory.

Wisconsin had a much more difficult task in the first round, having to get past a Hokies squad that was making its first March Madness appearance under coach Buzz Williams in its first trip to the big dance in a decade.

Zach LeDay led the Hokies (22-11) with 23 points before fouling out in his final collegiate game. Ty Outlaw added 16 points and seven rebounds. Justin Robinson had 11 points and six assists, and Seth Allen contributed 10 points.

“I literally dedicated my whole life to this program this season this past year,” said LeDay, a 6-foot-7 forward who scored more than 1,000 points in two years with Virginia Tech after spending his first two years at South Florida. “I don’t have any regrets. I wish we could have won. I’m really mad that we didn’t win. But at the end of day, these are my brothers for life, and Coach Buzz is like a father to me.”

Despite trailing from midway through the first half onward, Virginia Tech didn’t fold against a team with vastly more tournament experience. The Hokies cut the deficit to one point numerous times in the second half but couldn’t come up with the bucket to flip the advantage in their direction.

Koenig seemed to come up with an answer every time, knocking down 3-pointers with 8:22 and 5:21 to play, each time pushing the lead back up to four.

“You can definitely say I was looking for my shot,” he said. “It’s something I take pride in, being a senior point guard, is making plays in critical moments. And I knew when they kept cutting it to one that I was going to have to make some type of play, so I was just trying to be as aggressive as possible.”

“He’s done that throughout the year,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. “He’s hit big shots for us. He hit a big shot — everybody remembers the shot against Xavier last year that he hit to send us to the Sweet 16.”

The Hokies just couldn’t get over the top.

“You really don’t think about that, you’re thinking about getting stops and playing as hard as you can,” LeDay said. “We weren’t really thinking about the score. I know I wasn’t looking at the score for a second. I was just out there playing as hard as I could for my teammates.”

The final time Virginia Tech got within one point, Nigel Hayes (16 points, 10 rebounds) rescued Wisconsin with a three-point play, restoring a 77-73 advantage with 2:07 left.

Badgers senior forward Ethan Happ (10 points, eight rebounds) followed that with a put-back off a Koenig miss to expand the lead to five. After two missed Virginia Tech foul shots, an offensive rebound by Wisconsin’s D’Mitrik Trice led to two game-sealing Koening free throws with 36 seconds remaining.

“I think it definitely helped a lot for us to have the older guys that we have and have been through some of the runs we’ve had in the tournament,” said Hayes, who like Brunson was present for the team’s national runner-up finish two years back. “The emotion is higher, energy is higher, guys are playing more up tight. And I think when you have that experience, you’re able to relax a little more and you can go out and break school records.”

NOTES: Virginia Tech was making its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2007 and playing in only its third March Madness since back-to-back trips in 1985-86. The Hokies also went in 1996. Wisconsin was playing in its 19th consecutive NCAA Tournament, recording Sweet 16 trips (or further) in 2008, 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2016. ...Wisconsin’s streak of consecutive NCAA Tournaments is tied for fifth-longest in NCAA history. ... This was only the second meeting. Wisconsin won 74-72 on Dec. 1, 2008, at Virginia Tech.