TUCSON, Ariz. — Wisconsin had used its staunch defense all season to get to this point. And the fourth-seeded Badgers put together one of their best performances during the most crucial of times.
Wisconsin held Belmont to 18-of-49 shooting (36.7 percent) as the Badgers cruised to a 72-58 victory in the second round of the NCAA Tournament Thursday at the McKale Center, ending the Bruins’ 11-game winning streak and its season.
“I’m just so proud of our team,” said Belmont coach Rick Byrd. “So proud of their effort for 35 games — 40 minutes a game. I just couldn’t be more proud to coach a team and am very, very lucky to get to do so.”
The 58 points were a season-low for Belmont. Its next lowest point total came on Jan. 25 when it scored 64 in a loss to Lipscomb.
But things didn’t always look bleak for the Bruins on Thursday.
Belmont (30-5) used a 6-0 run at the hands of Jordan Campbell, who buried back-to-back threes to pull the Bruins to within four with 13:35 remaining in the game, forcing Wisconsin to burn a full timeout.
And just when the Bruins seemed ready to make their surge, the fourth-seeded Badgers (24-8) took over, executing a 13-1 run over the next five minutes to take their largest lead of the game at 56-40 with 8:30 remaining. Belmont would never get closer than 12 the rest of the way.
The Badgers beat Belmont at its own game in some ways. It was the Bruins who ranked second nationally with 9.4 made 3s per game. But Belmont could never get things going from long distance, making just 6-of-22 (27.3 percent) from behind the arc.
“They showed us something that we really hadn’t played against this year,” Campbell said of the Badgers’ defense. “If we weren’t ready to catch and shoot immediately, then we weren’t going to get a shot up.
“I feel like a lot of our threes that we took were really contested.”
Wisconsin seemingly couldn’t miss from downtown, as the Badgers, who shot 37 percent from three-point range this season, made 12-of-22 (54.5 percent).
“I think part of this game came down to it was a good day for them shooting and a bad day for us shooting,” Byrd said. “We both shot 22 threes. They made 12;, we made six. That’s 18 points difference.”
At one point, Wisconsin had made 17 field goals — 11 of which came on threes.
“I thought we defended in this game about as good as we can defend,” Byrd said. “I’d like to see how many of those threes were in the last six seconds on the shot clock and how many were contested. I know a couple of threes weren’t.
“Taylor’s step-back threes late in the shot clock are just practically unguardable.”
Belmont had no answer for Wisconsin’s dynamic duo of Jordan Taylor and Jon Leuer. Leuer, who has led the team in scoring all season, scored 22 points on 7-of-12 shooting, while Taylor added 21 points and dished out six assists. No other Badger reached double figures.
Belmont didn’t get much from its starters. Mick Hedgepeth led the Bruins with 17 points on 6-of-8 shooting, but the other four starters combined to make just 3-of-18 from the field.
The Bruins, who had the most productive bench in the country at 40.4 points per game, saw their role players pitch in just 28.
The Bruins took a 23-20 lead on a three-point play by Scott Saunders in the first half. But Wisconsin closed out the half on a 14-4 run, thanks in large part to an aerial assault from behind the arc that included four threes — two coming from Taylor, as the Badgers took a 34-27 lead into the break.
The Badgers finished the first half 7-of-14 from downtown, while Belmont connected on just 2-of-9 in the game’s first 20 minutes.
The Bruins outscored Wisconsin — the bigger of the two teams — 22-10 in the paint overall.
But Belmont, which has forced teams into 19.2 turnovers per game this season, faced an uphill climb against the Badgers, who lead the nation in fewest turnovers.
Something had to give, and it was the Bruins defense, as Wisconsin registered 13 assists to 13 turnovers.
Wisconsin shot 20-of-40 from the floor and made 20-of-25 from the free throw line.
But in the end, the Bruins still feel they gave everything they had.
“I don’t think we could have done anything better than what we did,” said Kerron Johnson.