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In Praise of Wisconsin Badger Basketball + No-Baseball Blues, Part II

Saturday April 4th would have been the start of the Final Four.  It is also the 27th birthday of the great Wisconsin Badger center Frank Kaminsky who five years ago on that night led my team to a stirring semi-final victory over previously undefeated Kentucky.  

 
It was sweet revenge for a loss to the Wildcats in the 2014 Final Four semi-final. 

It is too bad that Wisconsin couldn't hold a lead in the final against Duke - cunning Coach Mike Kryzewski successfully worked the refs in the second half and the Badgers didn't respond well enough. 

 

Yet the 2014-15 Badgers remain close to most of us alums' hearts. Frank Kaminsky was the poster boy for the Badger way of patient player development.

 

After needing the first two seasons to get used to the relentless toughness of Big Ten competition, Kaminsky exploded on the scene as a junior and in his senior year was named National Player of the Year, a first-of-its-kind honor for a Badger.

 

Kaminsky is currently recovering from knee surgery and hopes to resume his journeyman's pro career with the Phoenix Suns next season (whenever next season starts).  He's been the most successful pro from a team that included forwards Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes and point guard Bronson Koenig - all have played more in Europe than in either the NBA or its developmental league.

 

The line from Kaminsky went first to Ethan Happ who gave Kaminsky fits in practice when red-shirting. If only Happ, whose first cousin BTW is Yankees southpaw J. Happ, could shoot fouls and anything outside the paint.  (Last I heard Happ was playing in Europe before the pandemic ended his season.) 

 

It's a shame that this year's Badgers never got a chance to play in the post-season tournament.  The surprise #1 seed in the never-played Big Ten Tournament roared down the stretch with a eight-game winning streak.  

 

Big men Nate Reuvers and Micah Potter showed they were worthy successors to Kaminsky, Dekker, and Happ; gritty guards Brad Davison and D'Mitrik Trice brought back memories of the Ben Brust-Josh Gasser-Traevon Jackson trio; and swing men Aleem Ford and Brevin Pritzl, the only senior on the team, had great moments as well.   

 
The pain of losing basketball at a crucial time was bad enough even if an ESPN simulation predicted the Badgers would have gone all the way. Since coach Greg Gard, a worthy successor to his former boss Bo Ryan, gave crucial minutes to only six men makes me wonder if these Badgers would have gone all the way. Alas, they never had a chance so we'll never know.

 
No March Madness, and now we are dealing with the ongoing no-baseball blues. There are so many movies one can watch on TCM before one lusts for outdoor activity and seeing live sports again.  

 

I did catch a lot of TCM's late March baseball films.  Never had seen "Pride of the Yankees" straight through and Gary Cooper and Teresa Wright as Lou and Eleanor Gehrig made for a very endearing couple.  

 

I hadn't realized that Yankee catcher Bill Dickey plays a role in the 1942 film as a defender of Gehrig, slugging a teammate who criticizes the Iron Horse as his career tragically declines.  Babe Ruth also plays himself in the film and brings a lot of Ruthian energy to the role. 

 

Alex Mankiewicz, the daughter of co-screenwriter Joe Mankiewicz, made the pertinent observation in pre-film commentary that her father did love baseball and had been a pretty decent player.

 

MLBTV, of course, is another baseball outlet for me these days. I caught on April Fool's Day the replay of Game 7 of the 1991 World Series with the Twins beating the Braves in a 1-0 10 inning thriller.   

 
I remembered it as the Jack Morris Show with the Series-winning pinch hit delivered by Columbia's Gene Larkin.  I had forgotten that it was Dan Gladden's hustle leading off the bottom of the 10th inning that set up the winning run. 

 

Gladden never stopped running on a bloop single to left center and just got into second in the nick of time. Then Chuck Knoblauch did when the analytic geniuses of today pooh-pooh, gave himself up with a 4-3 grounder that sent Gladden to third base with the winning run. 

 

After intentional walks to Kirby Puckett and Kent Hrbek, pinch-hitter Gene Larkin ended the drama with a first pitch single over the head of left fielder Lonnie Smith

for the World Series-winning RBI. I felt bad for reliever Alejandro Pena who had pitched two innings in Game 6 and had worked this game since the 8th. 

 

I had forgotten that the Twins had great chances to score in the 6th, 8th, and 9th innings before Gladden and Larkin delivered in the 10th.  Of course, Game 7 is most remembered for Lonnie Smith's inexplicable stopping at second base on Terry Pendleton's drive over Gladden's head in left field.

 

On a play in front of him, Smith somehow got deked by the Twins' adroit DP combo of future Yankee Knoblauch and former Yankee farmhand Greg Gagne.

Of course, Jack Morris deserves full credit for pitching out of the second and third and no out situation on his way to a stirring complete game victory.

 

I had forgotten that Sid Bream, whose slide into home on Francisco Cabrera's single beat the Pirates in the NLCS to get Braves into the Series, hit into a 3-2-3 DP that got Morris out of the 8th inning jam.  How like capricious baseball to turn a hero into a goat in a matter of days.  

 
Announcer Jack Buck annoyingly wouldn't let Smith forget the booboo for the rest of the broadcast. But to Buck's credit, he did realize that the scoreless battle was a classic in the making.  After one half-inning, he invited viewers to return after a commercial break for more "torture and pleasure". 

 
I'm sure MLB will fill the void with more great games from the past.   It is a pale substitute for the real thing, but I do believe that patience is a virtue.  It looks like we'll have a chance to be very virtuous in the weeks ahead because I cannot see a baseball season starting before summer if then. 

 
Nonetheless, as always take it easy but take it!

 

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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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