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Stuck in the most predictable region of this year's tournament, No. 4 Wisconsin and No. 5 Vanderbilt were expected to wage a down-to-the-wire battle Saturday evening. And once again the East Region played out according to plan, with the higher-seeded Badgers escaping Albuquerque with a 60-57 win.
The Badgers (26-9) could not have done it without Ben Brust, who came off the bench to hit three timely 3-pointers in the second half. He scored all 11 of Wisconsin's points in an eight-minute stretch, joining four other Badgers in double figures.
Wisconsin was nursing a two-point lead over the Commodores (25-11) in the final seconds when Ryan Evans secured the biggest rebound of the night. After being fouled, he hit one of two free throws to set up Vanderbilt's last gasp. But Jared Berggren jumped to deflect the ensuing inbounds pass to preserve the victory and advance UW to the Sweet 16 for the second year in a row.
Just like he did against Montana on Thursday, Evans started fast for Wisconsin. The junior staked Wisconsin to an early 7-2 lead with three quick jumpers and finished the first half with 10 points. Evans added a team-high four assists, including several nifty passes for dunks or layups.
The Badgers were tested by Vanderbilt's switch to the 2-3 zone late in the second half. Though it slowed Wisconsin down (sounds funny doesn't it), Brust's shooting helped UW avoid another signature scoring drought. The extended zone look was good experience for the Badgers as they will face the vaunted Syracuse matchup zone all game long next Thursday.
Six-foot-11, 255-lb. center Festus Ezeli was a beast in the paint for Vanderbilt all night, but inspired Badger defense from Jordan Taylor, Josh Gasser and company flustered All-SEC swingmen John Jenkins and Jeffrey Taylor into shooting just 7-of-26 form the floor.
Bo Ryan continued to try fronting Ezeli, but that proved ineffective whenever Berggren was not guarding him. Frank Kaminsky and smaller players who switched to Ezeli all struggled to keep up with Vandy's big man. He finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds, including a layup that gave Vanderbilt a late 57-56 lead with 2:21 remaining.
But Taylor answered with an absolute dagger 3-pointer at the end of UW's next possession to regain the lead. Neither team could make much needed free throws in the final 1:45. However, Wisconsin won the game by grabbing two key offensive rebounds (first by Berggren, the second by Gasser) on its final possession that ended in Evans hitting 1-of-2 at the line.
The Badger lead grew to eight points on several occasions in the first half, as Mike Bruesewitz continued to rediscover his shot. Bruesewitz hit for 10 points on 2-of-3 shooting from downtown. Berggren scored 9 first-half points as well, but forced a few 3-pointers as a familiar dry spell struck the Badgers.
Wisconsin hit only 4-of-14 on 3-pointers before halftime and wound up attempting 33 shots from long distance (hitting 10) for the game.
Meanwhile, Vanderbilt fought off mild foul trouble to rally toward the end of the half. Brad Tinsley's 3-pointer pulled the Commodores to within 32-31 at the break.
In the second half, Jenkins gave Vanderbilt the lead right off the bat. But as time wore on, Wisconsin's defense held the Commodores to just two points over a 8:11 stretch in the middle of the period. The Badgers made their move on offense behind Brust, extending its largest lead to nine points, 53-44.
Brust shot 3-of-4 behind the arc and did not score outside of his 11-point outburst. Taylor led UW with 14 points on 5-of-15 shooting, but Berggren chipped in with 12 points and six rebounds.
With the victory, this year's Badgers now sit alone with the third-most wins (26) in program history. That is quite an accomplishment for a squad that began conference play 1-3.
The Big Ten is now 8-1 in this year's tournament, with Michigan State and Purdue still yet to play this weekend.
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