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Polzin: Wisconsin men's basketball, fans deliver on a magical and noisy night at the Kohl Center

"I've been here a long time and I don't know if I've heard it louder, and I don't know if it can get much louder," coach Greg Gard, now in his 21st season with the program, would later say. "And these guys were the reason."

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Wisconsin
Wisconsin Badger fans celebrate as the confetti flew in the Kohl Center after the Wisconsin Badgers defeated the Purdue Boilermakers Tuesday, March 1, 2022, to win the Big 10 championship at the Kohl Center.
Mary Langenfeld / USA TODAY Sports

MADISON — It's 11:18 p.m. and my head hurts.

The University of Wisconsin men's basketball team put the finishing touches on a 70-67 win over No. 8 Purdue a little over an hour ago — 62 minutes, to be exact — to clinch at least a share of the Big Ten regular-season title.

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Wisconsin
Wisconsin Badgers guard Chucky Hepburn (23) moves the ball past Purdue Boilermakers guard Jaden Ivey (right) during the first half at the Kohl Center in Madison, Wis., on Tuesday, March 1, 2022.
Mary Langenfeld / USA TODAY Sports

It was done in front of an announced crowd of 17,287 that created an electric atmosphere at the Kohl Center on Tuesday, March 1, from well before the opening tip until the moment Badgers coach Greg Gard, surrounded by players, staff and a student section that stormed the court, used a scissors to make the final cut to a net dangling from the rim. He waved it around in the air a few times and placed it around his neck before climbing back down the ladder.

All that noise, all three hours' worth of it, has caused a headache and that's not a complaint: I can say I was in the building for a special night in which the Badgers — and a delirious crowd that has fallen in love with this team — exhausted every ounce of energy they had.

"I've been here a long time and I don't know if I've heard it louder, and I don't know if it can get much louder," Gard, now in his 21st season with the program, would later say. "And these guys were the reason."

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Those guys are making my head hurt, too, because how do you possibly put this achievement into perspective? This amazing run to a title, how do you do it justice in 1,000 or so words?

When the Badgers won at Indiana on a Saturday afternoon in March nearly two years ago, finishing off a sprint to the finish line that included eight consecutive victories to clinch a share of the Big Ten title, I didn't think it could be topped in terms of improbable stories I would cover. That group had battled adversity all season, from the Moore family tragedy to Kobe King's midseason departure to the resignation of strength and conditioning coach Erik Helland, yet came out of it with a championship that nobody saw coming a month earlier.

Tough to beat that, right?

Then came along the 2021-22 UW team, picked to finish 10th in the Big Ten after a tumultuous offseason and the departure of five of the top eight players in the rotation. To say these Badgers have exceeded expectations is an understatement: They're 24-5 overall, 15-4 in the Big Ten and can wrap up the outright title on Sunday with a victory over visiting Nebraska.

"It's just a testament to the standards of our program, no matter who's coming back, or who left the program, our standard to compete for Big Ten titles and be at the top of the Big Ten," said UW guard Brad Davison, the only senior to return from last year's team. "That was our goal at the beginning of the year. And even though other people on the outside may have seen that in us, we saw that in ourselves from the very beginning, because of the players we had and the talent we had and the ability we had to be tough and play basketball to our identity."

Davison even delivered a little dig toward the beat writers around the Big Ten who collectively believed nine conference teams would be better than the Badgers this season.

"I guess it shows how much those predictions really mean," he said.

Touché. Meanwhile, Davison joined an exclusive club with this championship: He's one of three Badgers in the modern era of the program to be a regular starter on two teams that won Big Ten regular-season titles, joining Kirk Penney and Devin Harris.

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Asking Davison to compare the two accomplishments was a little like asking a parent to name his or her favorite child, but he delivered a good answer.

"They're both pretty special," Davison said. "And I think the thing that makes it similar is the thing that makes it special is the people you get to do it with and the relationships and memories you make along the way. We're going to have these hats and these T-shirts for a long time but also we're going to have the relationships with one another for a long time."

Three months ago, when the season was in its infant stages and the amount of empty seats around the Kohl Center was noticeable, Gard encouraged fans to come out to the Kohl Center. He'd already known for months how fun this team would be to watch, and he wanted others to experience it as well.

Students were lined up at the door by mid-morning Tuesday and at 6:30 p.m., about 90 minutes before tipoff, the line had stretched around the front of the Kohl Center. They did their part to encourage the Badgers in good times and bad and the, ahem, old people stood up, too. For all the complaining this season about how stale the atmosphere in this building had become, it rocked and rolled on Tuesday night.

"Great environment," Purdue coach Matt Painter said. "This was great for our league."

The game was great, too. Purdue used a 14-2 run in the second half to erase an 11-point deficit, but the Badgers bounced back. Of course, they did — teams don't get to 15-1 in games decided by six points or less without showing resolve over and over.

It takes some luck, too, and there were two instances in the final minute after the teams traded shots back and forth until UW had the ball while clinging to a 65-64 lead.

Johnny Davis banked in a shot from just to the right of the top of the key with his foot on the 3-point line, another memorable moment in his brilliant sophomore campaign. UW got a defensive stop and Davison went to the line with 15.1 seconds remaining, riding a streak of 25 consecutive made free throws at the time.

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But Davison missed and Jaden Ivey made it hurt by draining a 3-pointer with 8.9 seconds left to tie the game. It was about the only time the crowd was subdued, but Chucky Hepburn lit the fuse a little while later. The freshman point guard quickly dribbled down the court, never a doubt in his mind that he wanted to take the last shot, and released a 3-pointer from the left wing.

It banked in from a tough angle with 1.5 seconds to go, nearly blowing the roof off the place. After Tyler Wahl intercepted a desperation pass from Purdue, the championship-clinching victory was secured and the Badgers were joined on the court by hundreds of their newest friends.

"It was so loud at one point," Davis said, "my ears were literally ringing."

Same here, Johnny. Now please pass the aspirin.

Contact Jim Polzin at jpolzin@madison.com.

© 2022 The Wisconsin State Journal

Visit The Wisconsin State Journal at www.wisconsinstatejournal.com .

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