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Wisconsin aims to cap storybook run vs. Illinois in Big Ten title game

Mar 16, 2024; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Wisconsin Badgers guard Chucky Hepburn (23) works around Purdue Boilermakers guard Braden Smith (3) during the second half at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin finished the regular season on a down note by winning just three of 11 games.

Funny how fast the vibe has changed with the Badgers winning three straight games in the Big Ten tournament.

The suddenly hot Badgers will play for the tournament championship against No. 13 Illinois on Sunday in Minneapolis.

Fifth-seeded Wisconsin (22-12) crashed the title game with a scintillating 76-75 overtime victory over top-seeded Purdue in Saturday’s semifinals. Chucky Hepburn forced overtime with a layup as time expired in regulation and Max Klesmit hit the decisive floater with 4.8 seconds left in the extra session.

Second-seeded Illinois (25-8) had its own drama percolating in its 98-87 victory over third-seeded Nebraska. Terrence Shannon Jr. scored a career-best 40 points to set the Big Ten tournament record and the Fighting Illini overcame a 15-point deficit in the second half.

“Obviously Terrence breaks the tournament record, but the most important thing I hope our guys learn is it’s lose and go home,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said.

The Badgers seem to understand that as they overcame three-point deficits in the final minute of regulation and the overtime against Purdue.

“Just a terrific March game,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. “Excited to watch these guys mature and grow and get better as the season’s going on, and they’re playing their best basketball right now. This is where you want to be.”

During their late-season slide, the Badgers lost by 22 points at Rutgers to cap a four-game skid. But after losing to Purdue in the regular-season finale, Wisconsin beat Maryland by 31 points and Northwestern by nine to reach the tournament semifinals.

Now they will seek to win their first Big Ten tournament title since 2015, thanks to Klesmit’s floater that bounced off the back rim, kissed the glass and dropped through the net.

“I think our confidence is coming from the chemistry we’ve all built, this bond we’ve built in the locker room,” Klesmit said. “It’s carrying it outside onto the floor now. Our ability to learn during that stretch in late February, early March, and not dwell on it or look at it as a burden.”

Illinois has won the past seven meetings, including a 91-83 road win over Wisconsin on March 2 in the lone matchup this season. Marcus Domask led the Illini with 31 points.

But Saturday was the Shannon Show as Illinois fought back from a double-digit deficit for the second straight game. The Illini trailed by 10 with under 11 minutes left on Friday before rallying for a 77-74 win over 10th-seeded Ohio State in the quarterfinals.

It was more of the same in the semifinals as Nebraska looked firmly in control with a 55-40 lead in the opening minute of the second half. But Illinois controlled the rest of the contest with Shannon scoring 22 points as the Illini outscored the Cornhuskers 58-32 over the final 19 minutes.

“Teams don’t want to sprint back every single possession,” Domask said of the pace that was led by Shannon. “Terrence, he’s got a motor that keeps going. He doesn’t get tired. Little by little, he wears teams down.”

Underwood said the intermission break was not comfortable for his players. The Illini were badly outplayed and trailed 51-40 at halftime.

“I didn’t think we had any pop, we didn’t have any life,” Underwood said. “We looked like we were still in bed asleep. My halftime wasn’t about any Xs and Os. It was animated. Probably didn’t want to check my blood pressure.

“But we had to find some life. It obviously didn’t work because we had to call a quick timeout in the second half, and then they responded. It was on them. It wasn’t me. It was all them deciding to play. That’s who we can be in the second half.”

Illinois will be looking for its second Big Ten tournament title in the past four seasons.

–Field Level Media

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