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March Madness 2016: Wisconsin sneaks by Pittsburgh in opening round

At times it wasn't the prettiest of sights, but the Badgers advanced to the round of 32 with a win over the Panthers.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

ST. LOUIS -- Go ahead, run through the list of cliches. A win's a win. Survive and advance. By any means necessary.

Regardless of how you put it, the Wisconsin Badgers first-round NCAA Tournament win over Pittsburgh on Friday night at the Scottrade Center wasn't pretty. But all that matters, particularly in March, is that it was a win.

Forward Ethan Happ scored 12 of his 15 points in the second half and forward Vitto Brown hit the go-ahead three-pointer late as the No. 7 Badgers defeated the No. 10 Panthers 47-43.

For the majority of the game, the Panthers held the lead. That all changed in the final minutes.

So when forward Nigel Hayes, who struggled for most of the night, iced the game with two free throws with 1.3 seconds left, the Badgers could take a deep breath.

"Ecstatic," Brown said of his emotions. "That's why my voice is a little bit gone, because I was yelling so hard, harder than I had all season."

Huh, would you think of that? Wisconsin's formerly little-used forward almost exclusively for his vocal pipes could barely get any use of them because of his team's play on the court.

Happ's post play and Brown's three triples helped trigger the victory for the Badgers, make no bones about it: Wisconsin's season carries on at least until Sunday, when it will face No. 2 Xavier in the second round, because of its defense and hustle.

"This game obviously came down to being able to get stops defensively when offensively the gears were grinding, and we were having a hard time putting the ball in the basket," Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard said. "To be able to lock down and really play defensively as well as we played in a long time."

Those gears were certainly grinding offensively. The Badgers shot a meager 32.1 percent and scored only 16 points in the first half.

Anything less than the effort it churned out on the defensive end against Pittsburgh and Wisconsin would be headed back to Madison, not lacing ‘em up again until November.

The Badgers held Pittsburgh's top scorer, forward Michael Young, to six points and its third-leading scorer, guard James Robinson to seven points on 3-15 shooting. Throughout the game, Young struggled to get clean looks at the basket as the cardinal-red-and-white defense held him in check.

"We just had to prevent him from getting to the bucket and making easy shots," Badgers forward Charlie Thomas said. "He's a big guy. I think we did a good job of containing him."

Brown drained his last three-pointer of the day to give Wisconsin only its third lead of the game at 42-40 with 2:35 to play.

After a defensive stop, Happ continued to attack, finishing through contact to put the Badgers up by four.

Both teams exchanged misses before a defensive lapse gave Jamel Artis a wide-open three pointer that drew Pittsburgh within one point at 44-43 point with 41 seconds on the clock.

Hayes, who shot 3-17 on the night, missed a three on the next possession, giving the Panthers one last chance to win at the buzzer. However, James Robinson's short-range jumper rimmed out and Happ grabbed the board with two seconds left.

Happ sunk the first, but missed the second. It was then a hustle play by Hayes that resulted in a foul on Pittsburgh with 1.3 seconds left. The junior stepped to the line and sunk both free throws to ice the game.

"That's the position I want to be in."

"That's the position I want to be in," Hayes said.

To prepare for the physicality that was forthcoming against Pittsburgh, Gard brought out the pads for drills at practice this week. It served his team well once the ball tipped.

"We had pads, coaches really tried to toughen us up using those things," guard Zak Showalter said. "And I think it's helping."

Physical, sloppy, rough: whatever adjective you choose to put on it, the game's first 20 minutes were not pleasant to the eye.

The first came to a merciful end with Wisconsin trailing 22-16. The Badgers started 2-15 from the field and finished at a 6-24 clip, good for just 25 percent.

"I can't point to one thing, but I think we were just taking some contested shots," Showalter said in an attempt to summarize the first half. "All night, shots weren't falling, but I think we responded. Our defense really stepped up."

Wisconsin failed to get Hayes (1-7), Happ (1-2) or Koenig (0-3) established over the first 20 minutes as the Panthers pulled out to a 20-8 lead with 5:37 remaining. An 8-2 run to close out the half brought the Badgers within six.

That run continued into the second half as Wisconsin worked through Happ. Nine points from the redshirt freshman in just over five minutes gave the Badgers a brief 27-26 lead.

"We wanted to go early in the paint, but they were taking that away," guard Zak Showalter said. "So Coach drew up some good plays at half and we got Ethan going. Once he gets going, it opens up some stuff from the outside."

With the team's veteran leaders in Hayes and Koenig going a combined 4-25 from the field, Happ was the one who looked to be the one seasoned with experience. He went 6-8 from the field, grabbed nine rebounds and almost single-handedly got the Panthers in foul trouble in the second half.

"For him to step up on this stage and do what he did and produce and help us, help his team get this victory, is obviously important for his growth," Gard said. "But more importantly, it's great for us as a team."

Despite the quantity of looks Wisconsin created from outside the arc, nothing seemed to fall. The Badgers shot 4-19 from three as guard Bronson Koenig's 43-game streak with a triple came to an end.

"You may always make shots, you may not," Hayes said. "Today, we weren't the best three-point shooting team."

With a lid on the rim, the Badgers had to scrap for a win. They did just that.

Brown's eventual game-winner would never have happened without the hustle of Showalter, who flew between multiple Panthers defenders after a Koenig missed layup to poke the ball back to Koenig. The Wisconsin point guard moved the ball to an open Brown, whose shot was wet as water.

"First off, to be able to keep the ball alive, that was the biggest thing," Brown said. "And we knew at that moment of the game we had to make them pay for every mistake that they make. So it was an open shot. I was ten toes to the rim, so I was ready to shoot it."

All season long, Hayes has harped on his team needing to do the "little things." On Friday, they proved that they have been all ears.

"I think anytime you can get a boost like that, and again, to be able to score off an offensive rebound, whether it was getting fouled off the offensive rebound or finding open three-point shooters, anytime you can see the ball go in it's good for the confidence," Gard said. "And good for the soul."

There were the 14 second-chance points in the second half alone. Then, there was keeping one of the nation's top offensive rebounding teams off the glass. They also scrapped for the 50/50 balls, including Showalter's game-changing control tap.

And, lastly, there was Hayes' hustle-induced offensive board off of Happ's miss with 1.3 seconds remaining to seal the game.

"We didn't know if we wanted [Happ] to miss it or make it. So I told him, ‘Let's just play it out.' If he makes it, perfect. If he misses it, perfect. We'll just try to smack the ball out of the air and run the clock out.

"It took a very, very fortunate bounce and I was able to work my way around another foot and grab the ball."

Hayes erased all memories of his 14 missed field goals as he stepped to the line with Wisconsin up 45-43. By the time his work was completed, the Badgers led by four and were moving onto the second round.

Flawless? Not particularly. But style points aren't counted here in this month--this wild, eventful, unpredictable month.

"I guarantee Twitter is probably complaining about Wisconsin basketball," Showalter said. "But, hey, we're advancing. That's all that matters."