LAS VEGAS >> Wisconsin has its youngest team in two decades after losing six seniors from last year’s NCAA Tournament team.
The unknowns kept expectations low, had coach Greg Gard thinking it would take some time for them to gel.
Winning their first Maui Invitational — in Las Vegas, no less — is a good sign the Badgers should be just fine.
Johnny Davis scored 20 points, Tyler Wahl added 18 and a key block, and Wisconsin outlasted Saint Mary’s 61-55 today to win the Maui Invitational.
“The grit and the resilience, that’s always a good starting point,” Gard said. “When your guys play hard, you can live with mistakes. The grit and resolve with this group, I’ve seen that from the beginning.”
The Badgers (5-1) had reached the Maui title game once in four previous tries, losing to North Carolina in 2016. They had a fight on their hands against the Gaels, battling through a physical second half filled with collisions and tumbling players.
Wisconsin delivered the final blows after trailing by 10, the biggest Wahl’s jumper and two free throws after blocking Dan Fotu’s shot with 30 seconds left.
Three days of facing adversity in one form or another, one gigantic trophy for a team picked to finish 10th in the Big Ten.
“There’s something about this group, from the first day of practices we compete,” Wahl said.
Saint Mary’s (6-1) nearly made its first Maui Invitational appearance a memorable one, keeping the Badgers within reach into the final minute. Not being able to finish it off hurts, but the Gaels appear to be back after being relegated to the NIT last season.
Alex Ducas led Saint Mary’s with 13 points.
“That’s why you come to this, the best college basketball tournament in the country, to play against really good teams,” Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said. “We got to and tonight we didn’t come out on top, but I thought we played a good game against a well-coached team and group of guys”
The Maui Invitational was forced to shift east for the second straight year due to the pandemic.
Las Vegas has become a college basketball hotbed during March Madness and has added early-season tournaments to its hoops resume.
Las Vegas is known as the ninth Hawaiian Island, but the vibe just isn’t the same — bright lights and big arenas instead of island chill and the quaint Lahaina Civic Center.
The championship game had a different feel, too.
No. 12 Houston and Oregon arrived in the desert as the favorites to play for the title. Wisconsin jumped on the Cougars early and held on late to beat them 65-63 in the semifinals. Saint Mary’s made a statement against the Ducks, outclassing them in all phases for a 62-50 win.
The Badgers and Gaels played a tight title game by going to their strengths: Wisconsin pounding it inside, Saint Mary’s flowing and cutting.
The Badgers took a while to get shots to fall and the Gaels made 13 of 25 to lead 31-25.
“At the start, we were playing a little too much one-on-one basketball,” Wahl said. “When we started to swing it, playing our game instead of their game, that’s when we really started to roll.”
Brute force is a big part of their game.
The second half turned into a wrestling match as both teams turned up the defensive pressure, neither able to gain any separation.
Players repeatedly hit the floor after collisions and Wisconsin’s Lorne Bowman II had to come out after being bloodied over the right eye.
Wisconsin survived all the body shots, finally getting a chance to hoist the Maui Invitational trophy — in Las Vegas.
Butler 84, Chaminade 51
Jayden Taylor scored 21 points on 6-for-9 shooting and Ty Groce scored 18 and missed just one of nine attempts and the Bulldogs beat the Division II Silverswords in a consolation round game tonight.
The Bulldogs went 1-2 in Las Vegas and Chaminade lost its three contests.
Bryce Golden shot 6 for 8 for 16 points for Butler. Taylor, Groce and Bolden combined to shoot 20 for 26 and 12 for 13 from the foul line.
The Bulldogs (4-3) built a 9-0 lead and extended it to 18-2 before a 14-6 spurt capped by Tredyn Christensen’s dunk brought the Silverwords within 24-16 at 7:51 before halftime.
Jair Bolden buried a 3-pointer nearly a minute-and-a-half later for a 29-17 lead and Butler led by double digits the rest of the way. Butler led 45-29 at halftime and started the second half with a 6-0 run and it was never threatened.
Kevin Kremer scored 12 points off the bench, Christensen 10 in reserve and Isaac Amaral-Artharee 10 for Chaminade (2-3).