Wisconsin basketball team has received many clutch performances in the NIT and now heads to Final Four seeking a championship
MADISON – This is what Greg Gard envisioned when he decided that Wisconsin would participate in the NIT if given the opportunity.
Much like their play during the regular season, the Badgers have been far from perfect. Yet after home victories over Bradley and Liberty and a road victory over Oregon, UW (20-14) is in the NIT semifinals and will face North Texas (29-7) at 6 p.m. (Central) Tuesday at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
The Mean Green finished second in Conference USA with a 16-4 mark,. Two of the losses came against league champion Florida Atlantic, which has reached the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament and is 34-3 overall.
UAB (28-9), which finished third in Conference USA at 14-6, meets Utah Valley (28-8) in the second semifinal on Tuesday. Utah Valley won the WAC regular-season title but was upset in the semifinals of the league tournament.
“I felt if we could approach it the right way that this could benefit us, to get the bad taste out of our mouth after the Big Ten tournament,” Gard said, “but also for us to continue to grow. And if we’re going to be in these games, let’s go try and win it and attack it that way.
“They’ve done a phenomenal job.”
“The way you guys compete, and never, NEVER quit, and keep coming back
“That is an awesome trait to have”
Proud of this team’s fight#OnWisconsin pic.twitter.com/b5eYUmuFYe
— Wisconsin Basketball (@BadgerMBB) March 22, 2023
Wisconsin coach Greg Gard is pleased to see that the players have been rewarded so far for their hard work
After a disappointing regular season that included seven losses by five points or fewer and two more in overtime, UW was seeded 12th in the league tournament. The Badgers rallied late after falling behind by 27 points but fell to No. 13 Ohio State in the opening round.
“It’s been great for our guys; they needed this,” Gard said of the NIT. “I didn’t want to end the year, because of what they’ve committed to us, on such a downer after the Big Ten tournament.
“This has served its purpose and then some. And we’ve got more basketball to play.”
Junior guard Max Klesmit has emerged as a steely leader, with 16, seven and 18 points in the three NIT games.
He scored all seven of his points against Liberty in the final 2 minutes 11 seconds. He scored 10 of his 18 points against Oregon in the final 9:40.
“It’s been enjoyable to win these three in a row," Klesmit said. "The goal is to win the championship.”
Junior Steven Crowl has battled foul trouble but has been more assertive offensively and has hit 23 of 35 shots (65.7%) in the three games.
Guards Connor Essegian and Chucky Hepburn are a combined 5 of 30 from three-point range in the NIT. However, both hit critical three-pointers late in the 61-58 victory over Oregon.
Reserve guard Jordan Davis hit a critical jumper during UW's comeback against Liberty and contributed six points and eight rebounds in 19 minutes against Oregon.
"We're just blessed to be able to play more basketball," Hepburn said. "We know we didn't want to go out the way we did against Ohio State."
Wisconsin players have treated the NIT as seriously as they have the NCAA Tournament previously
"I feel like we're still getting better," Tyler Wahl said. "A lot of teams are done for the season. I feel we've improved the last few games and along with that our confidence is going up, which is a good sign.
"And we're playing basketball. It's the end of March. We've got to be grateful."
UW took another step forward with the victory over Oregon. Of course the Badgers' preference was to play in the NCAA Tournament. But to this point the players have attacked the NIT as they would have attacked the NCAA field.
Gard expressed his appreciation and satisfaction in the UW locker room after the victory over Oregon.
“You guys never, never quit,” Gard told the players. “And eventually it works. So damn proud of you. What you guys have been through, how you guys have stuck together when a lot of teams when things got rocky could have fractured.
“We’re not perfect. We obviously know that. None of us are, me included. But the way you guys compete and never, never quit and keep coming back, that is an awesome, awesome trait to have as a team.
“And it gets us another 40 minutes.”
More:How to watch Wisconsin vs. North Texas in NIT semifinal, time, livestream and radio
More:A fan at the Wisconsin-Oregon NIT game had a sign that said cheese curds are overrated. ESPN's broadcast and many others told him why he was wrong.
Our subscribers make this reporting possible. Please consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Journal Sentinel at jsonline.com/deal.
DOWNLOAD THE APP: Get the latest news, sports and more
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin basketball to NIT Final 4 after March Madness disappointment