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Loss to Florida may be Wisconsin’s toughest NCAA tournament defeat to swallow

Wisconsin’s Zak Showalter (3) and Ethan Happ (22) react after losing Friday. (Brad Penner / USA TODAY Sports)

Tom Oates

The Wisconsin State Journal

NEW YORK — There was a time when this wasn’t so hard.

When losing a game in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament didn’t seem like the end of the world.

When seeing your season end without cutting down the nets wasn’t a cause for utter despair.

Those times are long gone for the University of Wisconsin.

No longer is UW happy just to get to the NCAA tournament. Maybe at one time that was the case, especially after the Badgers had been excluded from the party for so many years, but things have changed.

These days, UW doesn’t expect to simply make an appearance in the NCAA tournament, gather a few memories and go home. It expects to win games. It expects to make the Final Four. It expects to give itself a shot at winning win it all.

The Badgers didn’t adopt that attitude after knocking off Villanova. They’ve built it up over the last four years. The current seniors have talked often about how two season-ending losses in the Final Four and last year’s late collapse against Notre Dame in the Sweet 16 — all by five points or less — were extremely hard to take.

But UW’s 84-83 loss to fourth-seeded Florida in an East region semifinal game Friday night at Madison Square Garden might have been the toughest to take yet. Yes, maybe even tougher than that championship game loss to Duke in 2015.

A running 3-point shot by Florida guard Chris Chiozza at the buzzer gave Florida the victory and broke UW’s heart despite a laudable, 45-minute effort by a Badgers team that refused to go down without the fight of its life. Amazingly, Chiozza’s shot came on the heels of UW guard Zak showalter sending the game into overtime with a nearly identical running 3-pointer near the end of regulation time.

“This is my hardest one, obviously,” said Showalter, a senior. “It’s the last one I’ll ever play with this group of guys for this program, which I love so much. I poured my heart and soul into this thing. It was just another emotional roller-coaster that we rode to the end of this one. Man, I’m still flustered right now. This one is going to hurt for a long time.”

Despite a strong start, it didn’t look good for the Badgers for long stretches of the game. They should have led at the half but instead trailed by two after committing nine turnovers and two inexplicable fouls on 3-point shooters. They trailed by as many as 12 points in the second half but rallied like they always do. They battled foul trouble throughout the second half and an upper leg cramp that severely limited guard Bronson Koenig during the overtime period. They watched guard DeVaughn Allen, Florida’s leading scorer on the season, go off for 35 points.

Despite those hurdles, the team that had won 13 of its previous 16 NCAA tournament games over the last four seasons showed that it is extremely hard to beat in the tournament and that its dream of a third Final Four in four years wasn’t unrealistic.

With a wide-open bracket after second-round losses by Villanova and No. 2 seed Duke, UW had a viable path to the Final Four. It was full of confidence and finally had an offense that was clicking on all cylinders.

Indeed, the door was open for the Badgers, right up until Chiozza, just one of the lightning-quick Gators guards, slammed it shut. UW didn’t go out easily. It fought to the end. In fact, it fought past the end, turning to Showalter to send the game into overtime with 2.5 seconds left on the clock.

The Badgers led by as many as five points in the overtime period and took an 83-81 lead on two free throws by senior forward Nigel Hayes with 4 seconds left. But the Badgers never doubled-teamed Chiozza after the inbounds pass even though he wouldn’t have had time to pass to anyone for a shot. Instead, he dashed upcourt, sliced between two defenders and crushed UW’s dreams.

“Every game that we’ve lost in the tournament has been under five points or something,” senior forward Vitto Brown said. “These losses hurt a lot. I might have rather gotten blown out by 30.”

In the end, UW’s season-long weaknesses persisted, hurting its cause. The turnovers in the first half. Allowing penetration into the heart of the defense by quick guards. Missing free throws at critical times.

Still, the Badgers managed to overcome them as all five starters reached double figures, they shot 50.9 percent from the field and they found yet another late-game hero in Showalter.

“Obviously, (it was) a very gut-wrenching game,” UW coach Greg Gard said. “As I told the team, the last 45 minutes are going to sting and hurt for quite awhile.”

Gard finished his thought by thanking his seniors — Showalter, Brown, Hayes and Koenig — for pushing the program forward during their time on campus. Amazingly for UW, two of those years ended in the Final Four and the last two could have. Even though they never accomplished their goal of winning it all, those seniors did manage to change some attitudes at UW, probably forever.

“This team battled to put us in position to even have a chance at the end,” Showalter said. “That’s what we’ve done all year. It’s just tough to go out that way.”

No one would know that better than the Badgers.

-- Copyright (c) 2017, The Wisconsin State Journal/Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.