A season of wonder came to a resounding and humbling end Thursday with a 75-35 defeat against second-seeded Wisconsin in a West Region first-round game.
The No. 15 Eagles (20-13) led by seven midway through the first half before getting overrun by the Badgers (27-7), who embarked on a good old-fashioned 40-6 surge — 19-3 to end the first half and 21-3 to start the second — in breezing to a round-of-32 game against No. 7 Oregon on Saturday at Bradley Center.
“I wish we could have made it a better game representing ourselves and the league a little better,” AU Coach Mike Brennan said.
The Patriot League champions acknowledged in the build-up that they would have to play almost perfectly to position themselves for an upset in what amounted to an away game, 78 miles from Wisconsin’s campus. They did give themselves a chance through most of the first half but then made one field goal over 17 minutes bridging intermission.
Among the nation’s best shooting teams all season, the Eagles hit 15.8 percent in the second half and 29.7 percent overall. They committed 17 turnovers and were outscored 43-13 after halftime.
“We couldn’t stop them, and then we started rushing things in trying to catch up,” sophomore guard Jesse Reed said. “It just started to unravel. It wasn’t a good feeling, because we weren’t playing the way we have been late in the year.”
Picked to finish next to last in the Patriot League, the Eagles claimed second place in the regular season and, buoyed by an efficient offense and stifling defense, won the tournament title last week. They also carried the program’s — and league’s — reputation for tormenting national titans; in 2008 and 2009, AU put scares into Tennessee and Villanova.
This upset bid was alive and well until late in the first half.
“We were excited,” said center Tony Wroblicky, the team’s only senior. “We were playing well. We were making them take tough shots, and we were scoring. Then we just hit a rut, and [it] extended throughout the rest of the game.”
Wroblicky and John Schoof (W.T. Woodson High) scored 11 points apiece, but the other reliable starters, Reed and Darius “Pee Wee” Gardner, combined to shoot 4 for 16. Wroblicky, battling 7-foot Frank Kaminsky, committed six turnovers, and Gardner had five.
With guards Traevon Jackson and Ben Brust partnering for 35 points on 12-for-17 shooting (6 of 11 three-pointers), the Badgers recorded the largest victory margin in the program’s 44-game NCAA tournament history. They shot 4 for 13 to start the game, then converted 22 of 39 (56.4 percent).
The Eagles were ahead by six when Wisconsin found its rhythm. Brust scored 11 points in the last nine-plus minutes of the opening period, and Jackson started and finished a 9-0 run to end the half with a three-pointer and midrange jumper.
The Badgers picked up where they left off after the break. Within six minutes, the Eagles had committed four turnovers and trailed by 20. They did not surpass 30 points until the 5:15 mark, when Schoof ended AU’s stretch of more than 13 minutes without a basket.
“Seeing the stage we’re playing on and the competition we’re playing against, it was a great experience,” Reed said. “I just wished the performance was better.”
Despite the outcome, the Eagles chartered back to Washington late Thursday with high hopes for next season. With most of the squad returning and transfers from Nevada and George Washington gaining eligibility, AU is likely to start 2014-15 as the Patriot League favorite.
The Eagles will, however, have to fill the void left by Wroblicky, who was the hub of Brennan’s Princeton offense, the team’s top rebounder and the league’s defensive player of the year.
“We only lose 7 percent of our roster, but he is way more than 7 percent of this team,” Brennan said. “I don’t know where we are going to get production like that because he had a terrific year. But it’s a great group, and we’ll try to take as much as we can from this experience.”
● OREGON 87, BRIGHAM YOUNG 68: This was one sweet homecoming for Elgin Cook. The rest of the Ducks made themselves at home, too.
Cook, a Milwaukee native who starred at nearby Hamilton High, scored a career-high 23 points, and the seventh-seeded Ducks pulled away from the 10th-seeded Cougars.
Joseph Young had 19 points for the Ducks (24-9), who had to stage a big comeback to beat the Cougars, 100-96, in overtime in December. There was no comeback needed this time, with Oregon turning away every charge by BYU in the second half.
Tyler Haws scored 19 points for BYU (23-12), which returned to the NCAA tournament after a one-year absence. Matt Carlino and Eric Mika had 15 points apiece.
— Associated Press