NEW YORK — In a way, it ended the way we all kind of knew it would.
We figured it would be abrupt. The jarring finality of an NCAA tournament loss always is.
Free throws would play a role, we thought. As would momentary judgment lapses. A dramatic three might have a starring role—though little did we know there would be two.
In the end, on paper, the mechanics of Wisconsin’s heartbreaking Sweet 16 loss to Florida were exactly what we expected, yet they were delivered to us in the most unbelievable, stunning way possible.
When coach Greg Gard, seniors Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes, and Ethan Happ climbed the dais to speak to the media after Friday’s loss, it was exactly what you would expect it to be.
It never ceases to amaze me that 20-year-old (give or take) athletes can step out in front of the world after the worst possible outcomes and answer semi-ridiculous (and fully ridiculous) questions with poise and grace.
Anyone who watched the game knows that Wisconsin’s failure to hit free throws in overtime contributed heavily to the loss. So did the team’s collective failure to redirect Florida guard Chris Chiozza—incidentally, one of the fastest athletes in college basketball—to eat off more time before his game-winning shot. So did the aforementioned mental lapses that led Gators guard KeVaughn Allen to rack up free throws at the end of the first half seemingly at will.
These are the mistakes that we who watched the game know affected the outcome; those who made them know that better than the rest of us ever could.
Questions are asked. Questions are answered.
This team—this beautiful, woke, frustrating, joyous team—now becomes a thing that was, that no longer is.
At the end of it—the end of a maddening regular season capped by a jaw-dropping (in every possible way) tournament run, the end of the careers of some of the most talented and decorated Wisconsin student-athletes ever—at the very end of it all was one of the single most amazing NCAA tournament games ever played.
In front of a loud and raucous pro-Wisconsin crowd. In New York. At Madison Square Garden.
For as much as we knew what was coming, I suppose we all knew that this team had more in store for its last encore than a lackluster eight-point loss, watching helplessly as the opponent dribbled in the corner as time expired.
For all of our foresight, we should have known that when this team would go—if it was to go—it would take something spectacular, something completely and utterly unexpected for it all to come to an end.
We knew it was coming, and yet they managed to surprise us anyway.