Max Klesmit helps lead Wisconsin with Liberty with an assertive performance in the closing minutes of the NIT’s second round game

Kamari McGee, right, congratulates the Wisconsin Badgers’ Chucky Hepburn after a goal in the first half of their game against the Liberty Flames in the second round of the NIT Men’s Basketball Tournament.

MADISON – Max Klesmit contributed to this in many ways in his first season in Wisconsin.

Neenah High School’s gritty junior guard shone brightest late Sunday at the Kohl Center to help the Badgers keep their season alive.

Klesmit scored all seven of his points in the final 2 minutes and 11 seconds to help UW scrape past Liberty (75-71) in the second round of the NIT in front of an energetic 10,436 crowd.

“He had some big buckets for us on the track,” said sophomore Chucky Hepburn. “We all have faith in him. We all have faith in him. We all believe in him.”

The Badgers were 0-of-14 from three-point range when Klesmit hit a three-pointer with 2:11 left to give UW a 68-67 lead. Then, after UW coach Greg Gard called a time-out with 48.9 seconds left, Klesmit got the ball in a scheduled play and scored with a left-hand punch with 42.7 seconds left to give UW a 72-71 lead bring.

“It’s good to see growth because we played that exact game against Rutgers and he didn’t finish,” Gard said. “He was able to finish today. I’m happy for him.”

Klesmit finished the goal and secured the win – after a terrific defensive sequence from Carter Gilmore – by scoring two free throws with six seconds remaining.

As a result, the Badgers (19-14) won their first straight games since December 30 and January 3, advancing to the quarterfinal round against Oregon or Central Florida on Tuesday or Wednesday.

These teams were scheduled to play in Eugene, Oregon at 6:30 p.m. Sunday. If the Ducks win, they will host UW. If Central Florida wins, the Knights will face UW at the Kohl Center.

Liberty finished the season 27-9.

BOX RESULT: Wisconsin 75, Freedom 71

“We’re still going to win it,” said Hepburn. “March Madness or NIT. We’re in to play.”

With a 36-point performance and nine rebounds in the opening round, Steven Crowl hit 7 of 8 shots and scored 14 points in the first half. He was rated a Flagrant 1 and a Technical with 49.5 seconds left at halftime, but this resulted in three fouls.

“I shouldn’t have reacted the way I did,” Crowl said. “I reacted pretty badly. That’s on me.}

He picked up his fourth foul – a charge – at 10:35 in the game and stayed there until 3:27 was left. Crowl’s last basket came at 7-10 in the opening half when he finished with 14 points, two rebounds and two assists.

Hepburn, who had nine combined points in 3-for-16 shooting in his last two games, attacked the lane early and often against Liberty’s smaller guards. He scored 19 points in the first half to help UW take a 37-34 lead and finished with 27 points.

He was 0 of 6 from three-point range but hit 9 of 20 shots and 9 of 11 free throws overall. The Badgers have come off the free throw line in 99 of 131 in their last nine games and hit 20 of 24 attempts (83.3%) to push their 10-game mark to 119 of 155 (77.0%) on Sunday.

“Chucky obviously made a great game,” Crowl said. “He came to the line. We just thought he might get down deep just because their guards were a little smaller. Obviously he executed.”

Tyler Wahl, limited to 17 minutes against Bradley in the opening round due to foul problems and a bruised knee, contributed 16 points and six rebounds in over 32 minutes.

Connor Essegian hit 1 of 2 free throws to put UW 73-71 ahead with 24 seconds left and added seven points. Kamari McGee and Jordan Davis each added two.

Carter Gilmore missed his only field goal attempt and remained scoreless at 22:29. But he snagged five rebounds and made perhaps the biggest defensive play of the game on Liberty’s penultimate possession against senior guard Darius McGhee.

McGhee, a three-time ASUN Player of the Year, came into play averaging 22.6 points per game and shot 39.9% from three-point range.

McGhee hit just 4 of 15 three-pointers but hit hard shots throughout the game, hitting 10 of 25 shots overall and hitting 7 of 9 free throws by drawing six fouls.

But he missed his final shot because Gilmore refused to allow a clean view from deep or a clear path to the basket.

Gilmore came on for Crowl with UW leading 73-71 when he snapped on McGhee with 17.8 seconds left. McGhee pulled back to the logo, turned right, tried to get back on the lane to the left, then turned right again. Gilmore stayed with him and forced a hard floater with 12.1 seconds left.

Klesmit came up with the loose ball, was fouled and hit the two free throws.

“I’ve said it all along that Gilly is an invaluable part of our team,” Gard said. “There’s an example. Moved his feet…

“He did a great job of keeping it in front of them as much as possible and when they got to the edge he let it come through the body. They don’t have stats for that, but it was a big game for us. “

Senior forward Kyle Rode was the only other Liberty player to hit double digits. He hit 4 of 7 three-pointers and ended up with 16 points. His last miss was a wide-open three-point attempt that saw UW hold on to a 72-71 lead.

“We were taught that if it’s a great shot for you, we’ll live with the result either way,” said Rode, a 39.9% three-pointer. “Well, 100%. Take it all day.”

Rode’s miss, followed by a miss and Gilmore’s outstanding defensive sequence helped UW stay alive and move forward.

“We’re still going to win it,” said Hepburn. “March Madness or NIT. We’re in to play.”

MORE: Wisconsin plays Liberty on Sunday at the NIT in hopes of winning the title

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This article originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin holds off Liberty in the closing minutes of the NIT second round game

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