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Wisconsin looks to keep run going versus Florida

Villanova Wildcats guard Jalen Brunson (1) walks off the court as the Wisconsin Badgers celebrate their victory during the second round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament last weekend at KeyBank Center. Wisconsin won 65-62. (Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports)

Mike Sullivan

The Sports Xchange

Wisconsin owns more NCAA Tournament wins than any other school over the past four years.

The Badgers look to add to that total Friday after delivering the tourney’s biggest upset by sending defending champion Villanova home.

The eighth-seeded Badgers (27-9) are the only team to reach the Sweet 16 in each of the past four tournaments, and they seek to reach the Elite Eight for the third time in four years when they face fourth-seeded Florida in the East Region semifinals at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

The Gators (26-8) easily handled Virginia in their second game, but even that convincing 65-39 victory doesn’t rate with what Wisconsin accomplished in the second round.

Top-seeded Villanova led by seven points with just over five minutes remaining Saturday and seemed intent on finishing off the Badgers. Instead, Wisconsin closed with a decisive 15-5 burst for a 65-62 victory. Suddenly, Badgers senior guard Bronson Koenig was envisioning reaching the Final Four for the third time in his career.

“We talked about the legacy we want to leave,” Koenig said. “Getting to the Final Four is one of the goals we talked about since the end of last season.”

The Badgers didn’t appear like a team capable of going on a tourney run when they lost five of six games late in the regular season. But they have turned it around by winning five of their past six games, defeating Virginia Tech in the first round before the attention-getting upset of Villanova.

Now they are looking for their 14th NCAA win over the last four years against a gritty Florida squad that won its first two tournament games by an average of 20.5 points.

The upset of Villanova elevated the Badgers into the trendy pick to also knock off the Gators, and Florida coach Mike White is just fine with rounding up the information to use as excess ammunition.

“I’d rather that than the alternative, I won’t lie to you,” White said. “I don’t know how much of a factor it plays, but I said it the other day: If you have (something) to get you angry, might as well use it.

“I understand why a lot of people would pick Wisconsin. Totally understand that. Our guys do too. Maybe it’s motivation, maybe it’s not.”

Sophomore guard KeVaughn Allen is Florida’s leading scorer at 13.4 points per game, but averaged 5.5 points on 3-of-21 shooting in the victories over East Tennessee State and Virginia.

Senior swingman Canyon Barry (11.8) is the team’s second-leading scorer but junior forward Devin Robinson (11.4) is serving as the difference-maker.

Robinson set the tone by averaging 19 points (on 15-of-25 shooting) and nine rebounds in the tournament.

“I think me getting an early start, it gets everybody going, and I’m not a selfish guy,” Robinson said of his strong play. “So I’m fired up, and I’m giving my teammates the ball. When we’re all sharing the ball, it’s going to be a positive outcome.”

The Badgers are also known for sharing the ball behind a well-balanced attack.

Koenig averages a team-best 14.5 points and made a school-record 100 3-pointers. Koenig also holds the school mark of 267 career 3-pointers and drained 31 in NCAA tourney play.

Sophomore forward Ethan Happ averages 13.8 points and a team-best 9.1 rebounds, and senior forward Nigel Hayes contributes 13.8 points and 6.6 boards.

The extensive tournament experience of Koenig and Hayes gives the Badgers a comfortable feeling entering Friday’s contest.

“They understand it’s one game at a time,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. “You’re working for 40-minute segments. If you don’t play well enough in that 40 minutes in front of you, you don’t have another one.

“We have another 40-minute opportunity on Friday night. If we’re good enough, we’ll have another one.”

This is the fifth meeting between Wisconsin and Florida. The Badgers won the most recent encounter 59-53 early in the 2013-14 season when Bo Ryan (Wisconsin) and Billy Donovan (Gators) were the coaches.