8th-seeded Badgers hold off Purdue, 64-60, cap unlikely West run

First Final 4 in 59 years

Ex-Division II Bryant scores game-high 18

March 26, 2000|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- The last five minutes were excruciating for Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett. Every time it seemed as if his Badgers had wrapped up yesterday's NCAA tournament West Regional final against Big Ten rival Purdue, the Boilermakers would make a shot to give themselves hope.

Bennett chewed on a towel and gyrated his squat body to every bounce of the ball. As the seconds ticked down at The Pit and Wisconsin held onto a four-point lead, Bennett pleaded with his team. "Don't foul don't foul," he yelled, his hoarse voice all but drowned out.

When the final shot missed and the Badgers had won, 64-60, Bennett flung his towel up 20 feet. It was not a symbol of surrender, but celebration, as eighth-seeded Wisconsin (22-13) culminated its improbable run to the school's first Final Four in 59 years.

"I feel indescribably happy," said Bennett, 56, who has been at Wisconsin for five years after coaching at two smaller state schools in Green Bay and Stevens Point. "But there's a big part of me that feels for Coach [Gene] Keady. They have my undying respect."

The defeat denied Keady, 64, another opportunity to get to the Final Four. It will be played this year at RCA Dome in Indianapolis, a little more than an hour's drive from the Purdue campus in West Lafayette, Ind. Keady's teams have played in 17 NCAA tournaments in his 20 years, and yesterday was only his second regional final.

"If that bothers a coach, he ought to get out of the business," Keady said. "There's only four going out of 315. I think we were a little impatient. When they got the lead we shot the ball quickly, and that's the worst thing you can do against them."

Behind the hot shooting of senior guard Jon Bryant, the typically tenacious defense of junior guard Mike Kelley and some clutch free-throw shooting from reserve Roy Boone, the Badgers became the lowest seed to make it to the semifinals of the NCAA tournament since No. 11 Louisiana State got that far in 1986.

"The big thing for me was to get open," said Bryant, a former Division II player who was named the region's Most Outstanding Player after scoring a game-high 18 points that included making five of nine three-point shots. "I just let fly and they started going down."

While Bryant was carrying the offense, Kelley harassed Jaraan Cornell, Purdue's top backcourt scorer in the tournament, into a 1-for-9 day. After missing two free throws and a breakaway layup earlier in the game, Boone hit four straight from the line, the second pair helping the Badgers build a 63-57 lead with 17.6 seconds left.

"Missing the breakaway was tough," said Boone, who lost control of the ball after dribbling under the basket. "I tried to put that behind me and make up for it on the defensive end. When they fouled me down the stretch, it dawned on me that we were going to the Final Four."

It took a while to come to that realization. After seeing an early 18-11 lead wiped out with an 8-0 run by the sixth-seeded Boilermakers, after watching a five-point lead cut to 31-28 at halftime on a desperation 18-footer by John Allison, a 6-foot-10 reserve, the Badgers found themselves behind 50-49 on a turnaround bank shot by Purdue standout Brian Cardinal.

That's when Boone, a junior guard, missed the two free throws. But after Purdue guard Carson Cunningham was stripped of the ball, Bryant hit a three to put the Badgers back in the lead. After two free throws by Cardinal tied the score at 52, forward Andy Kowske gave Wisconsin the lead for good on a leaning, hang-in-the-air layup.

Purdue (24-10) pulled to within 63-60 when Cunningham, after missing six straight shots, made a three-pointer with 11.5 seconds left. Kelley made the first of two free throws and Boone blocked a three-point attempt by reserve guard Maynard Lewis into the stands. Boone yelled at Lewis, who shoved Boone with a forearm.

"We just worked the offense to get great looks," Kowske said. "The guys hit key free throws in pressure situations. Roy, Mike and Mark [Vershaw] deserve a lot of credit."

So does Bennett, who kept his team together after dissension and criticism threatened to rip it apart earlier in the season. After a string of losses had left the Badgers at 13-12, players such as Boone were unhappy with their roles and fans were on Bennett for his defense-oriented style of play.

On the bubble for NCAA tournament consideration, Wisconsin helped its cause by beating Indiana in Madison in its final regular-season game. The Badgers then beat Purdue for the second time this year in the Big Ten tournament in Chicago before losing to Michigan State in the semifinals.

"Coach Bennett kept telling us that if we got to the [NCAA] tournament, we could do some damage," Boone said.

The Badgers have done it with their defense, holding high-scoring teams such as Fresno State, Arizona, LSU and Purdue to 55.5 points a game. Wisconsin will get another chance to beat a higher-seeded, high-octane team in Saturday's semifinals. The Badgers will play another Big Ten rival, Michigan State.

"I can't believe we're in the Final Four," Bryant said.

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