LAS VEGAS — Tyler Wahl and Johnny Davis turned words into actions during the Maui Invitational.
They were hyped heading into the season by the coaching staff as the new leaders of a young and unproven University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team.
Over three games on the Michelob Ultra Arena court in Las Vegas, the duo proved just that, guiding the Badgers to their first Maui Invitational title.
Two of the more seasoned members of the roster, Davis and Wahl led Wednesday’s 61-55 championship game victory over Saint Mary's with 20 and 18 points, respectively. The two players combined to score 52.8% — 103 of 195 points — of the team’s points over the whole tournament.
Davis was crowned tournament MVP and named to the all-tournament team, averaging 23.7 points and 6.7 rebounds during the three games of the tournament, but the win couldn’t have happened without Wahl.
Also named to the all-tournament team, Wahl added six points, grabbed two rebounds and had one block in the last 2 minutes, 7 seconds against the Gaels. His turnaround jumper with 51 seconds left gave UW a 54-50 lead, putting it just out of reach for Saint Mary’s.
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The junior forward was a key part of how the Badgers limited Gaels leading scorer Dan Fotu to only 11 points.
“[Wahl] does all the little things that help you win,” said Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett, who singled out Wahl’s defense as the reason for Fotu’s struggles. “He's strong. He walls up on layups. He's tough. He's not going to give you anything easy. I thought that's where he was effective. He played well.”
Wahl also played a pivotal role in the semifinal matchup against Houston, where he went head-to-head with Houston senior forward Reggie Chaney on both ends. At least six of Wahl's nine points came from attacking on the post and getting to the rim. He was also aggressive in fighting for loose balls and rebounds, finishing with a game-high seven boards.
UW coach Greg Gard said he didn’t want to call it Wahl’s “coming out party,” but Wahl showed clear improvements in the tournament compared to his first three games in the season. He was the team’s fourth leading scorer with 7.7 points over an average of 24.3 minutes per game before the trip to Vegas. He averaged 11 points over 32.6 minutes per game in the Maui Invitational.
“[Wahl] going from being a sophomore and kind of waiting in the wings … [to] him stepping into a leadership role [this year] at the forefront of being an underclassman has been big for him,” Gard said. “His mental confidence and believing or convincing himself that he's to be in that position.”
Davis was the team’s leading scorer before he missed the game against Providence on Nov. 15, averaging 15 points and 5.3 rebounds coming into the Maui Invitational. He didn’t miss a step after returning from a lower body injury and remained consistent in Vegas while taking another offensive step forward against Texas A&M, No. 12 Houston and Saint Mary’s to improve his season averages to 20.2 points and 5.6 rebounds.
Davis wasn’t impressed with his first-half performance against Saint Mary’s. He scored nine points on 3-for-8 shooting. He said the Badgers took a deep breath during halftime and stopped trying to force things.
He more than doubled his output in the second half. His defensive presence was also prevalent in his five defensive rebounds, one steal and the multiple times he forced a charge call on the Gaels.
“He's one of the best defensive guards in college basketball,” Bennett said. “He can really guard. Then they went to him down the stretch and he made some big buckets. I came away from this tournament thinking I don't know if there's a better guy in this tournament than that kid.”
Davis sank a 3 with 5:12 left in the game to hand the Badgers their first lead in the game. He scored two more points and grabbed two rebounds the remainder of the game.
The sophomore guard had a career-high 30 points against Houston to get them into the championship game in the first place. He also added four steals, four rebounds and two blocks against the No. 12 Cougars.
“He got bigger and stronger in the offseason,” Gard said. “He's more explosive. He does a better job making decisions. He's a better finisher than he was a year ago. And he's still scratching the surface. There's a lot of things that he can add to his game and improve his game.”
Badgers fans on Twitter gaining confidence with Wisconsin men's basketball after winning Maui Invitational
Short and sweet
Won tournament— smokeyzupan (@smokeyzupan) November 25, 2021
Defeated 3 previously undefeated teams.— K. Rudolph (@scientwest) November 25, 2021
Mr. Big Time
Good win. I love having a player we can just give the ball to in crunch time and get out of his way. Johnny Davis wasn't great today, but he scored 11 points in the final 8 minutes. That's big time.— Bazooka DHB (@BazookaDhb) November 25, 2021
Grab a seat
JD and Wahl were incredible— chuckwestover (@chuckwestover) November 25, 2021
Davison was awful shooting but did all the other little things we needed
FTs were great again
The bench even gave us 9
But we need to learn to pass like St. Mary’s - their ball movement was incredible
This team is going to be fun to watch
Not bad at all
Not bad for the 10th best team in the Big Ten— Taylor (@taylors0022) November 25, 2021
Wow! This team is much better than previously advertised!— Scott Lovelace (@Scottlovelace) November 25, 2021
Stay cool, stay cool
Expectations rising uncomfortably— Steve Moon (@moonraker717) November 25, 2021
Pack the house
Great tournament!! No excuse for empty seats at the Kohl Center this year. What a hard working group!!— Dave Osborn (@DOsborn61) November 25, 2021
It's a little loud in here
Sorry couldn't hear you over the whistles. Playing hard, fun to watch. Gard has them playing pretty poised and confident for such a young team— Laura (@DieselAndMe) November 25, 2021
The real MVPs
Glad I got see an epic performance by the refs. That’s the real reason I watch.— Mark Wolfgram (@markwwolfgram) November 25, 2021
Good ol' home cooking
Tough loss for Jay Bilas. We know how badly he wanted WI to lose— EJ Temme (@ej_temme) November 25, 2021
A thing of beauty
Youth is served
This team isn't always pretty to watch, but their mental toughness is incredible, especially for being so young.— Craig Smith (@smithcp1) November 25, 2021
Never a doubt
What a great game. I knew we were never out if it!! This team is young but tough.— Timothy Zoromski (@timothyzoromski) November 25, 2021
The little things matter
I’ve never been a Gard guy but give him and the team a ton of credit. No quit in the team and getting small contributions from a bunch of guys. Davis is clearly on another level now and that has made all the difference in the world.— Mark Wolfgram (@markwwolfgram) November 25, 2021
Can't please everyone
Wahl makes so many great plays, many dont show up in the stat line either— mike A (@mikeA42335593) November 25, 2021
Valentine's Day is three months away
I’m crushing on the Badgers. Really enjoyed their performance in Maui Invite. Seems like they have response when opposition makes run.— Fasteddie007 (@Fasteddie007) November 25, 2021