CHICAGO -- It's a horrible cliché, but if there was ever a game where neither team deserved to lose, Sunday's overtime thriller in the Big Ten tournament championship was that game.
In the end, however, top-seeded Wisconsin (31-3) was the team that came out on top, out-scoring Michigan State 11-0 in the overtime period for its first conference tournament championship since 2008.
For most of the afternoon, particularly in the second half, the Badgers' hopes of completing the sweep of conference regular-season and tournament titles looked bleak. The Spartans (23-11) cut up a Wisconsin defense that had looked virtually impenetrable down the stretch against Purdue, posting a shooting percentage as high as 65 percent late in regulation en route to a double-digit lead with just over six minutes remaining.
"We were letting them get easy slips to the hoop for dunks, making turnovers and taking bad shots," Wisconsin junior forward Sam Dekker said. "We had to eliminate those mistakes."
A UW timeout failed to slow the MSU offensive attack and the Badgers still faced a 10-point deficit when senior forward Frank Kaminsky, who was named the tournament's most outstanding player, made a dribble drive down the right side of the lane and finished a dunk with the foul, waking up the very friendly United Center crowd and sending Wisconsin into the under-eight media timeout back within striking distance.
"Frank was able to make a big play going into the timeout to make us feel a little bit better," UW junior guard Josh Gasser said. "And then making that free throw was big to keep momentum going."
"Frank's dunk was a big momentum changer," senior forward Duje Dukan said. "The crowd got back into it and I think it picked up our play defensively."
Kaminsky's three-point play sparked an 11-0 Wisconsin run that took the Badgers from a 59-49 deficit to a 60-59 lead in the span of just 2:01.
"We were able to make some big plays and get stops when we needed to," Gasser said. "Just like that, it was a two or three-possession game and any time you can get that close to a team, you feel a bit more confident."
With the crowd very much back into the game and in Wisconsin's favor, Michigan State responded. Freshman guard Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn, Jr., hit a three from the right corner to put the Spartans back on top and after a bucket from Kaminsky, junior forward Matt Costello finished off a pass from junior Denzel Valentine to restore the two-point Spartans advantage with three minutes left.
Michigan State had a chance to extend that lead after forcing a miss at the other end, but senior forward Brenden Dawson, who finished with a team-high 16 points, made an ill-advised attempt to feed a streaking Valentine, allowing Gasser to complete the steal and giving UW an opportunity it capitalized on with another score inside from Kaminsky.
"When games get close, if you are a team that has a habit of losing, you will lose, and if you have a habit of trying to win, you will win," said UW sophomore forward Nigel Hayes, who finished with a game and career high 25 points. "We expect ourselves to win and perform well and I think we showed that when we had our run to comeback and seal the deal in overtime."
After completing another stop, UW caught MSU on its heels and Kaminsky hit the last of his two three-pointers, giving Wisconsin a 67-64 lead with just over 90 seconds remaining. Out of a Spartan timeout, Valentine answered with a three-pointer of his own, evening the score yet again at 67-67 just before the one-minute mark.
On the ensuing possession, Nairn forced a Wisconsin turnover, leading to a bucket at the other end on a difficult floater from senior Travis Trice that put Michigan State ahead with 44 seconds remaining.
Out of a timeout, Wisconsin got a good look at a three-pointer from sophomore point guard Bronson Koenig, who had already made three triples in the second half, but it wouldn't fall and hope seemed to be fading as the ball bounded toward the sideline.
But in stepped Gasser, a.k.a. "Captain America."
The senior guard dove after the loose ball, crashing into the front row of media and creating a 50-50 opportunity near the lane. For a moment, it appeared Michigan State had control, but Valentine could not secure possession and Wisconsin recovered, feeding Koenig for a drive and foul with 15 seconds left on the clock.
"Josh does so many little things that people don't recognize that help us win," Dekker said. "You need those guys to be a winning team and we are happy to have Josh."
Koenig knocked down both free throws, tying the game and leading to a somewhat hectic finish that saw UW use two of the three fouls it had to give before allowing Dawson a fairly wide-open baseline jumper that nearly fell down at the buzzer.
In the overtime, it was all Badgers. After forcing a Valentine miss, Gasser corralled a missed jumper from Dekker and eventually found Hayes for an open three at the end of the shot clock, which had failed to reset even though Dekker's shot did indeed graze the rim. Another triple from Koenig, who finished with 18 points after heading to halftime with just one, pushed the lead to six. Then it was a flurry of free throws from Wisconsin to close out an 11-0 overtime effort.
"I thought we played one of the greatest game we've played for 32, 32.5 minutes, or 35, 36 minutes," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "And then we made a couple mistakes, and they made a couple of great shots, and that's the way the game goes."
Once again, Wisconsin couldn't sustain the momentum from a quick start. After taking a quick five-point lead 7.5 minutes in, the Badgers watched the Spartans run off a quick response to even the score, leaving the rest of the half to a back-and-forth contest that ultimately ended with Michigan State taking a one-point lead into the halftime break.
One of the reasons Wisconsin was able to keep it close was the contribution from Duje Dukan. Playing in the arena he practically grew up in,having been a ball boy for the Chicago Bulls as a child, Dukan knocked down three shots during his five minutes of court time while also picking up a steal that led to another bucket from Dekker. The Deerfield, Ill., native finished with 11 points and two assists on 4-of-6 shooting for the game.
"I knew my team was going to need me," Dukan said. "I grew up shooting on these hoops, so I knew it was unlikely I was going to miss too many here."
After weathering the storm yet again, the Badgers have completed step two of what they see as a three-step process to achieving the goals they set for the preseason. But coming out of a regular season that saw them rarely tested down the stretch, the experience of having to play in close games, overcome late deficits and perform in the clutch is something that could prove pivotal as the season moves to its final win-or-go-home phase.
"It shows us that we are capable of coming from behind," Hayes said. "It shows we have the gumption, as coach Ryan would say, to come back, tough it out and fight to get a win."