BUFFALO, N.Y. â€” When the season ended suddenly and shockingly, much earlier than Villanova expected, Kris Jenkins bent over in disbelief near mid-court.
There would be no game-winning shot, no confetti-filled celebration, no more games. The defending champions â€” and No. 1 overall seed â€” are done.
After two relatively routine days, madness returned to the NCAA Tournament on Saturday as top-seeded Villanova was bounced from the brackets and the East region 65-62 by No. 8 seed Wisconsin, which added another major upset to its resume and stormed into the Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive year.
Nigel Hayes scored 19 points, dropping a layup in traffic with 11.4 seconds left, and Bronson Koenig shook off foul trouble and added 17 for the tournament-toughened Badgers (27-9), who will play next week at New York’s Madison Square Garden after knocking off a Villanova team that never found its traction in snowy Buffalo.
“Seeds don’t matter,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. “I told these guys I don’t care where we’re seeded. We have to win six games. Let’s start with these two this weekend.”
Senior Josh Hart scored 19 to lead the Wildcats, but the guard was bottled up and stripped by Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ and Vitto Brown on a drive in the final seconds. Brown then split two free throws with 4 seconds left, but Villanova struggled to corral the rebound and then couldn’t get off a final shot.
It was a bitter ending for the Wildcats, who were trying to be the first team to repeat as champions since 2007. But starting with an unimpressive performance against No. 16 Mount St. Mary’s in its opener on Thursday, Villanova looked vulnerable and instead became the first No. 1 seed to be sent home.
“To me, there’s no dishonour in losing in this tournament,” said coach Jay Wright, whose team lost as a No. 2 in Buffalo three years ago. “We’ve lived through it. You are judged by how you play in this tournament and that’s the reality of it. So, you have to accept it.”
When the horn sounded, Wisconsin’s red-clad fans erupted in celebration and the Badgers stormed the court after taking down a No. 1 seed for the third time in four years. Wisconsin beat Arizona in 2014, Kentucky in 2015 and now can add Villanova to its list.
Flushed with pride, Gard hugged his wife and children as the Badgers’ pep band played their hearts out. A few minutes later, Wisconsin’s players doused each other with water and tore a few signs off the walls in KeyBank Center for souvenirs.
Hayes has been part of all those previous upsets by Wisconsin.
“All of those games we’ve been the underdog,” he said. “You have all types of ranking systems, statistics. The thing with all those algorithms is they can’t calculate heart, will to win, toughness, desire. And that’s the thing we have.”
Villanova came into the NCAAs on a roll after winning the Big East Tournament and was expected to at least escape the East but had their hopes busted and will have to relish those moments from last year when they won their first title since 1985.
Wright was concerned about Wisconsin, calling them a “great number eight” seed and compared them to Butler, which beat Villanova twice during the season. As it turned out, the Badgers were more than that, as savvy seniors Koenig and Hayes made several key plays in the closing minutes as Wisconsin overcame a 57-50 deficit.
Super sub freshman Donte DiVincenzo scored 15 and Jalen Brunson added 11 for Villanova. But the Wildcats got little from Jenkins, the hero of last year’s title game when he drained a 3-pointer to beat North Carolina. Jenkins couldn’t shake a prolonged shooting slump and went just 2 of 9 and 4 of 22 in two games.
Jenkins and fellow seniors Hart and Darryl Reynolds finish their career 129-17 in four years, but the sting of their last loss might linger.
“We’re close on and off the court and that bond is never going to be broken,” Hart said.
The Badgers have been at their best when it matters most.
Under Gard, Wisconsin improved to 39-1 when leading or tied with 5 minutes remaining, including 24-1 this season.
With a crown comes expectations, sometimes unrealistic ones. Tabbed as the team to beat â€” well, at least one of them â€” Villanova’s players and coaches knew anything less than a return to the Final Four would be looked at as failure.
Maybe not fair, but Wright knows that’s the reality.
“You’re a one seed, you’re supposed to get to the Final Four, get out of your bracket,” he said. “That’s probably what we have to be to be a success. And as you know, we accept that, we’ll take it. We’re not going to define ourselves that way, but we do get it.”
Villanova: There would be no magic this March for the Wildcats, who didn’t talk about repeating but were constantly reminded about trying to repeat. Jenkins and Hart are NBA bound, but in Brunson, DiVincenzo and Eric Paschall, Villanova has a solid core coming back.
Wisconsin: All that’s left for the Badgers seniors â€” Koenig, Hayes, Brown and Zak Showalter â€” is to win a national title. They’ve won 13 NCAA tourney games in the past four years and can’t be overlooked. This team can play almost any style and in Koenig Wisconsin has a player capable of taking over.
Wisconsin: Will play the Florida-Virginia winner next week.
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Tom Withers, The Associated Press