SYRACUSE, N.Y. — The University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team did not walk off the Carrier Dome court here Sunday pondering silver linings.
Having taken top seeded North Carolina (31-4 overall) to the brink before losing 88-82, the sixth seeded Badgers (25-9) were not concerned with moral victories.
“In theory you might say that but just as competitors right now it hurts,” senior guard Clayton Hanson said.
Wisconsin was defiant before, during and after its NCAA Regional final with the heavily favored Tar Heels. These Badgers never needed to prove anything to themselves.
“I went in here knowing that we were the only guys in here who thought we could beat North Carolina,” sophomore guard Kammron Taylor said. “Just the way we let it all hang out there on the floor, I’m proud of everybody. It just shows that we can play with anybody.”
“If you didn’t think that going in it would have been a long day,” Hanson said. “We had that mentality from the start. It was just a few possessions here or there that decided the game.”
The prevailing wisdom prior to Sunday’s game was that Wisconsin stood no chance of hanging with North Carolina in a high scoring, up-tempo game. And on balance, the feeling was that UW had little shot no matter what pace the game assumed.
The Badgers put both notions to rest, hanging with top-seeded UNC from start to finish.
“We have a lot of great players on this team,” senior forward Mike Wilkinson said. “They can all play and we’re not afraid to step on the court with anyone.
“You want to be on the floor with the best competition. You want to see how good you are.”
UNC’s 88 points were the most Wisconsin has allowed all season and the Badgers’ 82 points were the third most they scored all year.
The teams played the game at a quick pace, but a big factor in the tempo was each team’s excellent shooting. The Tar Heels made 12 of their first 14 shots in building a 25-18 lead, shot 59 percent in the first half and 53 percent for the game. Wisconsin shot 50 percent in a 44-44 first half and 49 percent in the game.
“It was probably more possessions than what we were used to but everybody stepped up on both teams and knocked down shots,” senior forward Zach Morley said.
“It says that whatever team we play we can play that style of basketball,” Taylor said. “A lot of people say Wisconsin is all about slowing down the basketball. When we hit shots we can play with an up-tempo team.”
On a few occasions the tempo got the better of Wisconsin, including a Jackie Manuel steal off a back court trap early in the second half that led to a Rashad McCants 3-pointer. The play was part of a game changing 14-0 run that made it 58-49 UNC with 14:54 to play.
UW turned the ball over 12 times, leading to 17 UNC points but trailed by just three points with 56 seconds left.
“Until the buzzer goes there is always a chance,” Wilkinson said. “The guys never gave up, kept fighting and just came up a little short at the end.”
“Coming into the game, we were the boring Wisconsin team that can’t score 50 points,” Morley said. “It really shows that it doesn’t matter what style of play we can compete with anybody.”