Wisconsin's season comes to frustrating finish as its offense evaporates in second half of NIT semifinal against North Texas
LAS VEGAS – Wisconsin’s season of frustration and missed opportunities ended in fitting fashion in the NIT semifinals.
The Badgers missed their final 10 shots of the game, went scoreless over the final 9 minutes 5 seconds, scored just 13 points in the second half and saw North Texas overcome a 12-point halftime deficit en route to a 56-54 victory Tuesday night at Orleans Arena.
UW’s final possession, after a timeout with 5.8 seconds left, ended with a turnover by Tyler Wahl on a pass to Steven Crowl.
The defeat brought to a close a disappointing season for the Badgers, who finished at 20-15.
BOX SCORE: North Texas 56, Wisconsin 54
"I just feel like the way it ended was kind of a cap to how the season went," said Wahl, who missed two free throws with 49.4 seconds left and UW trailing, 56-54. "We'd get some good things going and then something happens and (we'd) take a step backward, take a few steps forward and then go backwards.
"That was just kind of how it went."
Head coach Greg Gard and his staff expect most of the key players back next season. They are also hopeful Wahl will take advantage of his COVID exception and return for a fifth season, as Brad Davison did last season.
The staff has already contacted several players who have entered the transfer portal.
"We have a tough group," said North Texas coach Grant McCasland, whose team improved its record to 30-7. "To hold them to no points the last nine minutes and to hold them to 13 second-half points, I thought our team just got more active as the game went on. It felt like that last five was maybe our most active."
Chucky Hepburn led UW with 15 points, all in the first half. He hit his first 5 three-point attempts but finished 5 of 8 from three-point range and 5 of 13 overall.
Connor Essegian and Wahl finished with 12 apiece. Essegian air-balled a three-pointer in a tie game with 2:30 left and hit just 2 of 7 three-pointers. Wahl, 9 of 11 from the free-throw line in the first three NIT games, hit just 2 of 5 attempts Tuesday.
Crowl added 10 points, eight rebounds and two assists. Max Klesmit missed all 4 three-pointers, hit just 1 of 6 shots overall and finished with two points.
Essegian hit a three-pointer with 9:06 left to give UW a 54-46 lead but the Mean Green dominated down the stretch as the Badgers either missed a shot or turned the ball over.
The Mean Green scored five points off three UW turnovers in the opening half and added 13 points off nine UW turnovers in the second half.
"I thought we were really good offensively in the first half," Gard said. The second half I thought they got up into us early with some pressure and we turned the ball over and gave them some momentum and they got some confidence going…
"And they made some plays, made some shots."
Senior guards Tylor Perry (17.3 ppg, 41.9% three-point shooting) and Kai Huntsberry (12.0 ppg, 31.3 three-point shooting) scored 16 and 12 points, respectively, for North Texas.
Junior guard Rubin Jones tied the game with a basket in the lane and finished with 12 points. Then after Essegian missed the three-pointer from the right wing, Moulaye Sissoko (seven points) hit the winning basket over Wahl with 2:09 left.
After Sissoko's basket:
Klesmit missed a three-pointer, Wahl missed two free throws and Wahl saw a shot in close blocked by Aaron Scott. Klesmit tracked down the loose ball and UW called a timeout with 5.8 seconds left.
Essegian was the first option on the final play but he was covered curling around a screen. Hepburn got the ball on the right wing, beyond the three-point line. He dumped the ball into the lane to Crowl, who was double-teamed with 4.5 seconds left. Crowl then found Wahl on the right side of the lane with 3.6 seconds left.
Scott stood between Wahl and the basket. Rather than challenge Scott, Wahl tried to fire a pass to Crowl on the opposite side of the lane. He had no angle, however, because Sissoko was in front of Crowl and the ball bounced into the opposite corner and time expired.
"Probably one pass too many," Gard said. "We needed to get the ball up on the rim."
"Looking back at it now I probably should have put it up," he said. "But I dished it off and turned it over."
The Mean Green entered the game No. 1 nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 55.7 points per game. They held nine opponents below the 50-point mark and had limited teams to just 30.1% three-point shooting.
The Badgers, shooting just 24.0% from three-point range in the previous five games, came out white hot.
With Hepburn hitting his first 5 three-pointers, the Badgers were 6 of 11 from three-point range and 11 of 18 overall in building a 32-21 lead with 8:15 left in the half.
UW finished the first half 7 of 17 from three-point range (41.7) and 15 of 31 shots overall (48.4%) and held a 41-29 lead. The Badgers hit just 1 of 8 three-pointers and 6 of 25 shots overall in the second half, however, and wilted.
"I thought we were aggressive and doing some good things," Gard said. "The turnovers got us out of rhythm. And then we had some good looks, both in the paint and from the perimeter.
"The inability to keep our momentum going offensively created some tentativeness. That’s more of a credit to them. I think they dialed up a little more ball pressure in the second half and didn’t let us be as free and easy as we were in the first half."
BRACKET:Updated NIT tournament matchups
MORE ON NORTH TEXAS:Here are 5 things to know about the Mean Green, the country's best defensive team
Our subscribers make this reporting possible. Please consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Journal Sentinel at jsonline.com/deal.
DOWNLOAD THE APP: Get the latest news, sports and more
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin falls to North Texas in NIT semifinals