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"Sometimes A Game Is So Good It's A Shame Anyone Loses": Gators Nip Badgers in Sweet 16 Classic

I haven't brought myself yet to watching a rerun of Wisconsin's heartbreaking buzzer-beating loss to Florida in a Sweet Sixteen classic not decided until the early hours of Sat morning March 25.

I was lucky to be in attendance at the sold-out Madison Square Garden. After watching an open-to-the-public practice of my Badgers Thursday afternoon, I went to the box office and picked up a suite ticket at the face value of "only" $175.

Maybe the ticket was still available because fans of Duke and Villanova, regional favorites knocked out a week ago by South Carolina and Wisconsin respectively, decided not to show up in New York.

Whatever the reason for my good fortune, I relished the great enthusiasm from the fans of teams that did make the regional. All four schools brought their bands and cheerleaders and mascots.

During one of the interminable built-in commercial breaks, there was early in each game a battle of the mascots. Cocky, South Carolina's gamecock, easily outperformed Baylor's Bear. It was an augury of the whipping that South Carolina put on Baylor in the uncompetitive first game.

When Bucky Badger outperformed Florida's Gator early in the second game, I hoped it was a good omen for my side. And for the first 15 minutes of the game, Wisconsin outplayed Florida, looking like the more composed and more defensively adept team.

Things changed when Nigel Hayes went to the bench with his second foul, a call he mildly disputed with the ref. Then DeVaughan Allen, Florida's sophomore guard who had slumped in earlier rounds of the tournament, took over.

Allen hit a wave of threes and even worse got fouled on two attempts. He calmly sank all 6 free throws, giving Florida a two-point halftime lead.

I've long felt that in basketball the two key parts of any game are the last minutes of the first half (when stamina after nearly 20 minutes of play is a big factor). And the first minutes of the second half when the best teams pick up their momentum despite resting and perhaps losing their intensity.

The second point is especially important in tournament games when the normal 15 minute intermission is increased to 20 minutes. Florida came out blazing and never let Wisconsin recapture their early dominance.

I didn't realize that Wisconsin's best shooter Bronson Koenig was ailing with hamstring issues. Yet suddenly he caught fire and after a couple of stops and a big shot by another senior leader Nigel Hayes the Badgers grasped a one-point lead.

It didn't last one possession as Florida quickly hit a three to reclaim the lead. They built it back to over 10 points and led by eight with under two minutes to go.

Then the Badgers showed their heart and will to win. Florida helped by not running their offense, just running out the clock and playing not to lose.

Still with just six seconds to go, the Gators held a 3-point lead. Koenig's cramps now kept him on the bench. It was up to another senior Zak Showalter to play hero, hitting an off-balance three to tie the game and force overtime.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was at the game sitting next to Andy North, former US Open champion. Showalter gave Rodgers the "double check" salute popularized in the State Farm insurance TV commercial.

Once the overtime started, Showalter got called for a controversial foul that the refs debated for a long time while being cascaded with boos from the crowd.

The call is something I want to see again - I guess they ruled Zak pushed the Gator defender out of bounds.

Still, Wisconsin took control in the overtime, leading by 5 points at one point. Nigel Hayes missed some key foul shots but it looked like the game would be cemented with a dunk by Ethan Iverson after catching a floor-length pass.

Iverson, an extremely athletic swing man, is another Badger spirited from the state of Ohio by savvy recruiters - Hayes, senior Vitto Brown, and freshman D'Mitrik Trice are there more.

Here is a painful irony - I've often wished that Iverson didn't dunk so much.
But in a play that I need to see again, Iverson took his time and elected to lay it up.

Out of nowhere sped Canyon Barry, Rick's underhanded-foul shot shooting son, to block Iverson's layup. Florida scored on the other end with reserve Chris Chiozza making a layup. Remember that name in infamy, Badger fans. Of course we will.

When Hayes hit two free throws (the ones I will remember as clutch forgetting the other misses), we led by two with four seconds to go and no time outs for Florida.

But Chiozza drove the floor tightly guarded by Hayes for some of the time. Yet he broke free enough near the top of the key to hit his off-balance shot to win the game at the buzzer.

He turned Showalter's shot into a footnote, but for me the memory of this game will be its all-out intensity and brilliant play. And eternal kudos to Florida coach Mike White who said that he was heartbroken for his rival coach Greg Gard. Indeed it was a game, he said, that no one should have lost.

That's all for now. Next time - baseball and more baseball.
Always remember, as both Wisconsin and Florida did this memorable March 24-25, 2017, take it easy but take it!
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Proud To Be A Badger! + Thoughts on World Baseball Classic

Wisconsin basketball has surprised the pundits and even many loyal fans like yours truly by making the Sweet 16 of the NCAA basketball tournament for the fourth year in a row. To make matters even sweeter, their chance to make a third Final Four in the last four seasons will take place at Madison Square Garden starting Friday March 24.

Funny how things work out in unpredictable sports. With four seniors in the starting lineup plus the gifted redshirt sophomore Ethan Happ (a guard in a forward's body), the Badgers were supposed to contend for both a Big Ten title and a deep run through March Madness.

Then calamity hit late in the regular season as Wisconsin lost five out of their six Big Ten games ceding the league title to Purdue and their player-of-year candidate Caleb Swanigan. The return to health of senior guard Bronson Koenig helped get Wisconsin out of their funk and they won their first two games in the Big Ten tournament.

They did lose the title game to Michigan that joins them in the Sweet 16 along with Purdue. Watch out for Michigan that survived a near-plane crash on the way to the Big Ten tournament to become a force to be reckoned with.

Bravos in order for a supposedly mediocre Big 10 while the ballyhooed Atlantic Coast Conference started the tourney with 9 teams and they are down to one, North Carolina who were lucky to beat Arkansas in the second round.

According to the website uwbadgers.com, there will be an open practice at MSG for the Badgers on Thursday at 1p. I intend to go and will report back after the games.
I say "games" because if Wisconsin beats Florida starting at 10p Fri on TBS, they play in the final against either Baylor or South Carolina on Sunday afternoon.

Meanwhile the World Baseball Classic winds up at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on Wednesday night March 22. Puerto Rico nipped the Kingdom of Netherlands on Monday night taking advantage of the bizarre rule that starts the 11th inning with runners automatically on first and second base and no out.

Puerto Rico will face either USA or defending champion Japan. They are squaring off on Tuesday night March 21. Regardless of the result, Team USA has already experienced a great moment when Adam Jones robbed Manny Machado of a home run that kept the lead for USA and ultimately eliminated the DR team.

It was a special moment for at least two reasons. Jones and Machado are teammates on my Orioles but Manny decided to honor his mother's country of birth by playing for the DR team. Manny tipped his cap to Jones for his great catch as the USA avenged the DR's dramatic victory in Miami a week earlier.

From all I've heard and read, the atmosphere at Marlins Stadium was unlike anything ever experienced. A largely Dominican sold-out crowd were celebrating their heroes and the game of baseball from hours before the first pitch to hours afterward.

The DR team roared back from a 5-0 deficit to win 7-5, thanks in big part to a 3-run home run by Seattle Mariner Nelson Cruz over his former Oriole teammate Andrew Miller (now with Cleveland).

There are a lot of problems with the timing and the mechanisms of the WBC. But the great moments have made it worthwhile, especially when you consider the boredom and increasingly superficiality of most spring training games.

Well, that's all for now. Always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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