I’ve been lucky to witness, in person, a lot of thrilling Badger men’s basketball games since I came to Wisconsin in 1994. One that ranks near the top of the list is being shown Tuesday, Jan. 13 (11 a.m. CST), on the Big Ten Network’s “The Big Ten’s Greatest Games” series.
Dick Bennett became the head coach at Wisconsin in the spring of 1995 and had steadily been putting his stamp on the program. Bennett’s teams, of course, were known for their great defense, taking care of the ball and making each game – to paraphrase former Northwestern coach Kevin O’Neil – like a trip to the dentist for opponents.
Bennett guided UW to the second round of the NIT in his first season (1995-96), but the Badgers were looking for more in ’96-97. They added point guard Ty Calderwood to a roster that featured forwards Sam Okey, Paul Grant, Sean Daugherty and defensive stopper Hennssy Auriantal.
Wisconsin, playing its final full season in the UW Field House, had battled its way to a 17-9 overall record, including a 10-7 mark in Big Ten play, as it prepared to host No. 2-ranked Minnesota on the final day of the regular season.
The Golden Gophers, featuring stars Bobby Jackson and Sam Jacobson, were already locks for the NCAA Tournament that would start the next weekend (this was the last year the Big Ten played without a conference tournament). In fact, Minnesota played in the Final Four that year. As for the Badgers, some felt they were already in the tournament. Others felt they were “on the bubble.” But most agreed that a win over Minnesota would put the finishing touch on Wisconsin’s tournament resume.
Calderwood had given the Badgers solid point guard play much of the season. One of his standout performances was an 11-point, six-assist, no-turnover effort in 37 minutes as the Badgers defeated 12th-ranked Indiana, 71-58, at the Field House on Jan. 4. It snapped a 31-game losing streak to the Hoosiers.
He was a hero this day, as well. Minnesota led at the half, 36-29, but the Badgers chiseled away at that lead until a three-pointer by guard Mike Kosolcharoen put the UW ahead, 44-43, with 14:11 remaining to play. A tense, back-and-forth battle ensued, but the Golden Gophers took a 65-64 lead on a Jacobson three-pointer with 39.9 seconds left. That set the stage for UW’s junior point guard.
Calderwood was fouled by Minnesota’s Eric Harris with 11.8 seconds left to play and went to the line to shoot a pair. He made the first one to tie it at 65-65. Minnesota’s Clem Haskins then called a timeout, but Calderwood calmly sank the second free throw to give the Badgers a 66-65 advantage. Jacobson had the ball on the left wing with about six seconds left as the Gophers tried to tie or win it, but Calderwood knocked the ball away from him and into Okey’s hands. Okey then threw the ball downcourt to Calderwood, who held the ball as the final seconds ticked off the clock.
Calderwood flung off his jersey and threw it into the crowd that had rushed the floor, setting off a wild celebration. The Badgers had locked up the school’s second NCAA Tournament bid since 1947.