No doubt Ryan wanted to leave the scene of the final possession as quickly as possible. Still, he waited.
Finally, his senior point guard, Jordan Taylor — who had played superbly all night but had been forced to rush a fallaway, NBA-length three-pointer because the Syracuse zone defense didn’t crumble in the final seconds — walked slowly up to his coach, the last Wisconsin player off the court.
Ryan put his hand on Taylor’s head and whispered something in his ear. Taylor nodded, then collapsed in Ryan’s arms in tears, just as his legs had collapsed underneath him when the final buzzer sounded and he realized his career was over.
“I said a couple things to him,” Ryan said about 30 minutes later, his voice soft but full of pride. “He’s been around me a long time so he understood.” He paused. “It’s the kind of thing you have to be a player or a coach to really understand.”
No doubt the emotions they shared at that moment were special, but in a real sense they were emotions anyone watching could understand: Endings hurt, especially the kind that all but one team each season ultimately suffers. They hurt even more when they are sudden and come after two hours of grinding, intense, every-possession-matters basketball.
“One of the best games I’ve been a part of in a long time,” Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim said. “It may be the best a team has ever played against us and not beaten us. They made 14 threes and we still managed somehow to win the game.”
The Badgers needed to pitch a perfect game to beat Syracuse.
They almost pulled it off.
During the first 15 minutes of the second half, Wisconsin made 9 of 12 three-point shots against Syracuse’s impeccable 2-3 zone, including six in a row. Even though they struggled all night to find shots — the shot clock seemed to be under five seconds on almost every possession — the Badgers somehow got the ball where it had to go just enough to stay in the game.
On Wednesday, Ryan told a story about a close friend who asked him how he planned to attack the Syracuse zone. “We’ll shoot from half-court,” Ryan told him. “I think that way we’ll be open — at least for a while.”
His joke almost proved prophetic.
“We got a lot of looks from outside and we took them,” Ryan said. “We took what they gave us. That’s how we survive.”
Had they survived this game it would have been a remarkable upset if only because Syracuse played so well and was still one possession from losing the game. Ryan shook his head. “Man, we were so close.”