With his team reeling after a rocky start to the season, junior guard Bronson Koenig's 22 points led an inexperienced Wisconsin Badgers to a hard-fought 74-73 win over VCU on Sunday in the third place and final game of the 2K Classic at the Madison Square Garden.
The last two points may have been the most important ones.
Trailing by one point after a Melvin Johnson jumper put the Rams up 73-72 with 32 seconds remaining, Koenig's layup found the bottom of the net with 5.9 seconds left to give the Badgers a much-needed victory.
Redshirt freshman forward Ethan Happ (12 points, 10 rebounds) posted his second consecutive double-double en route to earning all-tournament honors. Junior guard Zak Showalter did it all for the Badgers with 10 points, six rebounds, six assists, three steals and two blocks.
After struggling mightily on offense in their 71-61 semifinal loss against Georgetown on Friday, the Badgers got off to a flashy start. Wisconsin made seven of its first eight field goals in jumping out to an 18-7 lead.
The Rams finished out the half strong, however, thanks in part to 27 bench points. A 19-7 run gave VCU a 43-37 lead over the Badgers heading into halftime.
The Badgers regained the lead at 51-50 on a layup by Koenig with 14:00 remaining in the second half. VCU would not regain the lead until Johnson's elbow jumper with 32 seconds left gave them a 73-72 advantage.
With 23 seconds to play, Badgers head coach Bo Ryan called a timeout and drew up a play designed for junior forward Nigel Hayes, who finished with 10 points and four rebounds.
However, the entry pass to Hayes in the post was taken away by Koenig's defender on the play, guard Doug Brooks. Just as he had all game, Koenig took matters into his own hands.
Koenig drove to his right, sensed Brooks had over-committed to that side and spun back to the left. Over the outstretched arm of the help defense provided by forward Mo Alie-Cox, Koenig's layup with his left hand kissed off the glass and bounced in to give the Badgers a 74-73 victory in thrilling fashion.
Johnson finished with 21 points on 8-for-18 shooting to lead the Rams. His three-pointer at the buzzer from the nearest New York City borough, however, failed to hit the rim.
With one shot by Koenig, the sting from Wisconsin's two gloomy losses to the Hoyas earlier in the weekend and Western Illinois on November 13 in the season opener was reduced significantly.
The team with the most freshmen in college basketball (eight), the Badgers grinded out a victory against a VCU team that figures to still be playing come the NCAA Tournament in March.
Wisconsin made 26-of-49 shots (53.1 percent) while holding the Rams to 26-for-61 shooting (42.6 percent). Against VCU's havoc defense, however, the Badgers turned the ball over 11 times in the first half en route to 17 on the game.
True freshman forward Charlie Thomas added career highs of nine points and five rebounds in extended action as junior forward Vitto Brown sat with foul trouble.