NEW YORK – Continuing a late-season tradition Thursday, Brad Davison wrote an inspirational message on a whiteboard inside the Madison Square Garden locker room occupied by the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team.
Using a blue dry erase marker, the freshman guard kept it short and sweet: BE SPECIAL.
Davison elaborated on the meaning after the Badgers kept their season going with a 59-54 victory over Maryland in a Big Ten tournament game.
“It definitely was a rough start to the year for us, but we keep saying that we’re going to have a great story to tell,” Davison said. “It’s a new season, it’s a clean slate, just try to make the most of it and be as special as you can be.”
UW (15-17) did just enough special things down the stretch to book a date with top-seeded Michigan State (28-3) in a quarterfinal on Friday, the second meeting between the teams in a span of six days.
Junior center Ethan Happ scored 14 points to lead four players in double figures. The Badgers also got 13 points from Davison, 11 from junior swingman Khalil Iverson and 10 from sophomore guard Brevin Pritzl.
The Badgers’ fifth win in seven games wasn’t sealed until Iverson stole an inbounds pass late in the game and made two free throws with 0.8 seconds remaining.
“How they've grown over the last month has been fun to watch,” UW coach Greg Gard said, “and hopefully we've got a lot more basketball yet to play.”
Twenty-five days earlier, these teams met at Maryland and the Badgers’ losing streak was extended to five games with a 68-63 loss. That game was tied late, but the Terrapins made big shots down the stretch and outscored UW 8-3 over the final 86 seconds.
This one was tight as well. But after Maryland sophomore wing Kevin Huerter tied it at 53, the Badgers ended the game with a 6-1 surge over the final 30.6 seconds.
“It just felt different,” UW redshirt freshman forward Aleem Ford said after the Badgers trailed for only 78 seconds in the game. “I felt like we were in control most of the game. Even when they were making their runs back, I still felt like we punched back pretty well and were able to stop them from getting a major run.”
The biggest difference from the UW team that left College Park in early February and the one that headed into the postseason feeling like it could take a bite out of the Big Apple is the progress it’s made on defense.
The Badgers held the Terrapins to 0.95 points per possession and finished with nine steals. UW also made Maryland (19-13) pay for its mistakes, finishing with a 15-2 cushion in points off turnovers.
“We know that’s the one thing that we’ve got to have,” UW assistant coach Dean Oliver said. “That’s got to be a staple. We’ve got to play defense that way. That’s been the change coming down the stretch is we’ve bought into the defensive end, and we stayed right there the whole game.”
The Badgers weren’t great offensively, shooting 36 percent overall and 16.7 percent (3 of 18) from 3-point range. But they made up for it at the line, going 20 of 24 to finish almost 14 percentage points higher than their season average coming into the game.
That allowed UW to survive field goal droughts of 9:21 in the first half and 5:46 in the second half.
The Badgers showed some toughness and resilience during one particular possession late in the game, with Iverson and Happ grabbing offensive rebounds to keep the ball in UW’s hands in a tie game.
It paid off when, after a timeout, Pritzl took a pass from Davison and drained an 18-foot jumper from the top of the key to give the Badgers the lead for good.
“That’s just the heart and the battle the guys were willing to give,” Oliver said. “We told those guys … at the last media timeout, we said, ‘The team that wants it more is going to win this game.’ When you get those type of offensive rebounds, that’s the team that want it more.”
For 2-plus minutes, the teams had been trading baskets that created three ties. Maryland finally blinked.
After Pritzl’s go-head shot, Huerter earned a pair of free throws. He had been red-hot, scoring on three consecutive possessions, but this time Huerter missed his first attempt from the line with 9.2 seconds left.
Huerter, who finished with a game-high 20 points, made his second attempt, but Davison answered with a pair of free throws with 8.5 seconds remaining to extend UW’s lead to 57-54.
After a UW foul with 5.6 seconds left, Maryland had the ball out of bounds in front of its bench. It appeared the play was designed for sophomore guard Anthony Cowan Jr. to come off a screen and get the ball, but junior guard Dion Wiley inexplicably passed it to Huerter instead.
The pass was lazy, Huerter wasn’t ready for it and Iverson saw a chance to pounce. He poked the ball free, gained control of it and took valuable seconds off the clock until being fouled by Wiley.
“That’s not what we wanted,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said.
But Turgeon said the game wasn’t decided by that one play.
“Really came down to two things,” he said. “We fouled too darn much and we couldn't get a rebound when we had to get a rebound.”
Afterward, the Badgers’ celebration was low key. They know they have more work to do, starting with another shot at the No. 2 Spartans.
For UW, it’s another chance to prove it can be special.
“Especially how our up and down our season has been,” Happ said, “we definitely want to play the best of the best just to show how good we actually are.”