JACKSONVILLE, Fla.— Slow and plodding early, fast and frantic late. No matter the tempo, Wisconsin stayed poised against pesky Wofford.
It’s exactly what coach Bo Ryan expected from his team, which has plenty of NCAA tournament experience.
And in the end, the Badgers did exactly what they do best — play defense.
Jon Leuer followed a huge jump shot with an even more critical steal on the other end, and the fourth-seeded Badgers eked out an ugly 53-49 win over the 13th-seeded Terriers in the first round of the NCAA tournament Friday.
Leuer finished with 20 points, including two free throws with 4.2 seconds remaining that sealed the victory, and sent the Badgers into the second round for the fourth consecutive year. They will play No. 12 seed Cornell in the East Region on Sunday.
“He’s been huge for us all year, and everybody knows that,” teammate Keaton Nankivil said.
Trevon Hughes added 19 points for Wisconsin, including 12 of the team’s first 21.
The Badgers (24-8) slowed it down early, playing their typical crawling style, then turned things up when the Terriers (26-9) opened the second half with a flurry of points.
Jamar Diggs scored 11 of his 13 points in the first 5 minutes after the break, helping Wofford overcome an eight-point deficit. The Terriers, who made just seven of 25 shots in the first half, hit their first eight baskets to start the second and took a 38-37 lead.
But Wisconsin, one of the Big Ten’s best defensive teams the last decade, didn’t panic. Ryan’s squad simply ratcheted up its defense down the stretch.
Hughes picked Diggs’ pocket near midcourt and turned it into a layup on the other end with 1:54 remaining. Terry Martin missed the first of two free throws for Wofford.
Hughes dribbled into the lane and kicked it out to Leuer, who drained a shot from the corner just inside the 3-point line. That put Wisconsin up 51-49.
A clutch shot, indeed.
But it got even better for the Badgers a few seconds later. Cameron Rundles tried to secure a pass in the corner, but Leuer got his hand on the ball and tipped it out of bounds. Officials conferred before deciding Rundles touched it last.
Instead of getting a shot to tie the game at 51 or go ahead, Wofford was forced to foul with 4.2 seconds left. Leuer hit both free throws to seal the victory.
“We’ve had a lot of different matchups, and we’ve played a lot of different styles,” Leuer said. “We just focus on what we’re going to do. We always want to get good shots and take care of the ball, and no matter who we’re playing, how big they are or how small they are, it’s about what we do.”
Wofford didn’t help itself in the closing minutes. In addition to two turnovers, the Terriers missed two free throws. Rundles came up short on the front end of a one-and-one, and Martin clanked one with 1:17 remaining.
“It’s the Wisconsin Badgers. They kind of stiffened up there in the last 4 minutes,” Wofford coach Mike Young said.
Leading scorer Noah Dahlman finished with 10 points and five rebounds for the Terriers, who were making their NCAA tournament debut.
“It’s a tough one to swallow,” Dahlman said. “It’s why it’s a great tournament. Everybody has a shot. We had our shot.”
Wofford, the smallest enrollment of any school in the NCAA field, insisted it wouldn’t be overwhelmed on college basketball’s biggest stage. But that’s exactly what happened. The Terriers struggled from the floor and let the much bigger Badgers dictate pace.
Young implored his players to let loose at halftime, and they responded. They shot 56.5 percent in the second half and looked like they wanted it more. But they couldn’t get any good looks late — mostly because of Wisconsin’s defense.
The Badgers finished with seven steals, which helped them overcome 37 percent shooting that included 1-of-9 from 3-point range and just three assists.
“We gave one heck of an effort,” Young said. “We did everything but win the dad-gum game.”