LAS VEGAS — The University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team rallied after a sloppy first-half performance to defeat Saint Mary’s in the championship game of the Maui Invitational.
With the win, the Badgers are the Maui Invitational champions for the first time in UW history.
No team had a bigger lead than 10 points with 15 minutes, 58 seconds left in the half, but the Badgers took their first lead in the game with 5:12 left in the game to carry them to a 61-55 win.
The UW defense kept them in the mix by forcing eight turnovers and limiting the Gaels’ second-half shooting to 32%.
Johnny Davis and Tyler Wahl led the championship effort with 20 and 18 points, respectively, while Davis added seven rebounds. Wahl recorded a game-high four blocks. Davis was crowned tournament MVP, averaging 23.7 points and 6.7 rebounds during the three games of the tournament.
UW Coach Greg said the Badgers’ performance over all three of their games this season was a great sign early in the season. He said it’s only the beginning and the team’s young roster will continue to improve.
“The grit and the resilience that this group has developed and grown and the chemistry that they have shown, the togetherness — couldn't be more proud of them,” Gard said. “I think we are watching this group grow up right in front of our eyes, and that's the neat part about coaching is just take a group of young guys coming from all different places and watching them come together and have fun doing it.”
The Badgers hoisted the Maui Invitational trophy in front of an energetic UW crowd. While getting pictures taken and celebrating on the court, sophomore Jordan Davis joked that maybe the team would be ranked in the next AP poll.
“Jump Around” pumped through the sound system and UW rushed over to the fan section to do the iconic Camp Randall jump around before heading into the tunnel.
Davis and Wahl were named to the all-tournament team, as were Saint Mary's Logan Johnson and Dan Fotu and Houston's Fabian White Jr.
Here are three things that stood out:
Wide open spaces
UW prides itself on its defense, but Saint Mary’s connected on 52% of its shots in the first half. The Badgers left multiple players open for easy shots and weren't getting set in transition, which allowed the Gaels to go into the half up by six points.
On at least eight occasions, Saint Mary’s players were left wide open and knocked down shots. Junior forward Alex Ducas exposed a hole in UW’s defense when he made three uncontested shots from the same spot in the corner at different points in the first half.
Two Gaels’ players were left undefended underneath the basket. Johnson was given a clear lane in the last seconds of the first half to widen Saint Mary’s lead going into the break.
Johnson found an open lane with 11:43 left in the second half. He took advantage of it to give the Gaels a 41-37 edge.
Ducas was left wide open at the top of the 3-point line with 1:47 left in the game. His shot closed the Badgers lead to just one point.
Things did improve in the second half, with Saint Mary’s finishing with a shooting percentage of just 43% by game’s end.
The Badgers countered the Gaels’ aggressive play and solid offensive performance with savvy and grit.
Chucky Hepburn never let up on defense and forced at least three turnovers down low simply by poking at the ball and was credited with a steal. Steven Crowl battled on every rebound he was on the court for and got at least a finger on a loose ball.
Davis competed for a defensive rebound with Saint Mary’s 6-foot-7 forward Fotu and utilized an in-the-air spin move to protect the ball.
Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said after the game that Davis might be one of the best defensive guards in college basketball right now.
“It's all about a mindset,” Davis said. “Just got to want it. You got to want to stop somebody and move your feet. I learned from [Wahl] a lot, too. I think he's honestly a better defender than I am.”
Carter Gilmore noticed that Matthias Tass wasn’t set in his footing and drove down the lane with 5:41 left in the first half. Tass got called for a blocking foul and put the Badgers in the bonus. Gilmore sank both his free throws to end a scoring drought that lasted 2:48.
Crowl and Davis forced Johnson to step out of bounds on the baseline with 5:16 left in the game that eventually allowed the Badgers to take the lead.
The Badgers did not shoot well in either half and finished 21-of-56 (37.5%) from the field and 3-of-12 (25%) from 3-point range. They did connect on 16 of their 18 free throw attempts.
UW found itself in at least three different scoring droughts of more than two minutes. UW was getting a lot of good looks, but none of them seemed to fall.
But when the Badgers needed big-time shots, they got them. Lorne Bowman went on a 5-0 run during a minute-and-a-half stretch early in the second half that switched some momentum. Davison responded with his own 3-point shot right after.
Davis and Wahl’s second-half boost was the reason the Badgers were able to overcome Saint Mary’s. They combined for 23 points in the second half alone.
“I would say our defense turned into our offense,” Wahl said. “We couldn't really get anything going and then we were able to get some key stops down the middle of the stretch of the second half and that kind of turned up our offense.”
Photos: Wisconsin Badgers top Saint Mary's Gaels for Maui Invitational title
The University of Wisconsin men's basketball coach talks about the new additions to the Badgers' roster at Big Ten media days Oct. 8 in Indianapolis.
Wisconsin guard Johnny Davis (1) poses with the MVP trophy after an NCAA college basketball game against St. Mary's at the Maui Invitational in Las Vegas, Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021. Wisconsin won 61-55. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)