EVANSTON, Ill. — For the second-straight season, a defensive meltdown ended Wisconsin’s hopes of an unblemished year. And while this year’s quagmire in Evanston doesn’t carry the same magnitude as the debacle in East Lansing a season ago, the result was another stinging blow.Saturday’s collapse against Northwestern isn’t a completely new experience for a favored Wisconsin team. The Wildcats nipped the then-No. 7 Badgers in double overtime in 2000 and ended any early Big Ten title hopes for UW two years ago.What made this defeat especially seething was the fact that fans and players alike seemed to have the feeling that 2005 was turning into a special year in Madison. What better way to send out the school’s greatest coach ever than by having one of the best seasons in recent memory?Regardless of that thought, the fate of Wisconsin’s season will now be determined by how the team responds to its hiccup in Evanston.”It’s not going to be tough to move past,” senior Brandon Williams said. “We lost, now we’ve got to go win the axe, keep the axe. It’s tough to swallow, but it’s over now.”Williams’ confidence is admirable, and this team may be a good candidate to rebound quickly — after all, not many experts thought Wisconsin would be riding high at 5-0 into Evanston. In fact, at the start of the year this game looked like it would be a hotly contested match-up. And that line of thinking held true despite Wisconsin’s unexpected hot start to the season.But, in order to bounce back and win more than a handful of games, the team’s defense must improve drastically. The secondary in particular and the defense as a whole rehashed the problems it experienced against in the season opener against Bowling Green, allowing Wildcat quarterback Brett Basanez to control the game.More disturbing, however, was the manner in which Northwestern freshman running back Tyrell Sutton gashed the run defense, which had been yielding only 77.4 yards per game entering Saturday’s contest, for 244 yards. That does not bode well for a team heading to Minnesota next weekend for a date with the run-happy Golden Gophers and star running back Laurence Maroney.”Our guys do handle corrections very well,” defensive coordinator Bret Bielema said. “I think that they’ll come in next week, Monday in particular, with the attitude that whatever they’ve got to accomplish, they have to in a short amount of time, because Minnesota’s not going to do anything but go right after us too.”Wisconsin is without question in a better position to respond to the loss more effectively than it did to last year’s 49-14 thrashing at the hands of Michigan State. For one thing, the season is still relatively young, giving them a significant amount of time to recover from the loss compared to last year. The fact that those aspirations for an undefeated run and high expectations haven’t built up yet also works greatly in the Badgers’ favor.And on the “moral victory” level, oft-criticized quarterback John Stocco and the passing offense sustained and improved upon their success from the win over Indiana.Even more importantly, Wisconsin is still in the thick of the Big Ten race.”Personally you never want to lose, but you take the loss for what it is,” Williams said. “We’re 2-1 in the conference. It’s not over by any means. We’ve still got six games left. That’s the first thing I said when we came into the locker room. We’ve still got six games left. We’ve got to keep the axe next week and that’s all that matters. There’s only going to be one undefeated team after this week anyway, so we’re still right there in the mix.”Still, Wisconsin has to actually carry that mentality through and right its ship following a tough loss on the road. And with the toughest stretch of its schedule looming ahead, the team will need to do that in a hurry. For his part, the always-confident Williams says he’s not ready to panic.”This doesn’t compare to the Michigan State game,” Williams said. “This game is just a bump in the road. We still can go 11-1 and be all right.”Whether they can truly do that and how they respond to that “bump” remains to be seen.
Coming off a solid road victory up at Stanford on Tuesday, the No. 1 USC beach volleyball team (26-0) is back home and ready to wrap up the regular season as it hosts a pair of California teams for two dual matches on Thursday afternoon. The Trojans will put their 56-match winning streak on the line when they welcome No. 5 Long Beach State and Cal State Bakersfield to the friendly confines of Merle Norman Stadium, where USC has won its last 12 straight matches. Furthermore, the Trojans will look to win their 88th dual in their last 90 tries.Senior All-Americans Kelly Claes and Sara Hughes, the first pair in NCAA history to reach 100 wins together (123-4 overall, .968), headline the current undefeated Trojan squad at the top court after setting a national record with 103 consecutive victories from April 2, 2015 to April 8, 2017. The two veterans have the benefit of experience on their side, having played together at court one since their sophomore years. However, the other four USC pairs have all had to adjust to new partners in 2017, with 14 different lineup changes being used throughout the season due to various injuries. But with a team as deep as USC’s, Hughes knows how big of a luxury it is to have players on the roster that can come in and step up when called upon.“I’m not surprised at how well our team has adjusted,” Hughes said. “I think that’s a big thing for us this year — we have depth from top to bottom, from our ones to our fives and even our exhibition pairs. People are working really hard in practice and pushing each other to get better, and that has been great for us as a whole.”The Trojan depth has been on full display so far this season despite the lineup changes, with three different USC pairs notching at least 20 wins this season. One of those successful pairs is the tandem of juniors Jenna Belton and Jo Kremer at the No. 5 spot. With a 28-3 overall mark together on the season and a 24-1 record in dual matches, Belton and Kremer will look to extend their own winning streak to 10 consecutive matches with two wins on Thursday. Finally, the No. 3 pair of junior Terese Cannon and senior Nicolette Martin have posted 24 overall wins (seven losses) with 21 of those coming in dual play. In total, six pairs have recorded at least 11 wins overall this season.
What had been a 39-26 lead early in the second half was entirely gone when Cougars guard Armoni Brooks hit a 3-pointer to tie it at 49-all and Corey Davis’ drive put Houston in front by a pair with 3:38 remaining. Kentucky scored on six of seven possessions from that point, including Herro’s big 3-pointer. Washington’s two free throws iced it.“I love our will to win,” Calipari said. “To be where we are still standing when we had Reid (Travis) out for what, three weeks, we had PJ out for … how we got through last weekend without him, I have no idea. I’ll say it again, if you take the best player off of any team in the NCAA Tournament, they’re not going to be the same. We just happened to survive.”The Wildcats lasted just long enough without Washington for him to hop into the picture and rescue them. It’s not the kind of thing Kentucky will forget. One more win, though, and his heroics will bear a reward that goes beyond public appreciation. His injured foot wasn’t feeling fine enough even to go through a gameday shootaround before the Wildcats faced 3-seed Houston in the Midwest Region semis in Kansas City. When it was time to warm up for the game in the hallways underneath Sprint Center, though, Washington was jogging with the other Wildcats. When the game tipped off, he was on the bench in uniform, waiting to be summoned.SN’s MARCH MADNESS HQLive NCAA bracket | Live scoreboard | Full TV scheduleWhen it was over, Washington was the star of a harrowing, 62-58, come-from-ahead-and-then-from-behind Wildcats victory. When it was over, Washington had left an indelible mark in a state where they remember the sort of sacrifice he made Friday evening.“We don’t win today if he doesn’t play,” UK coach John Calipari said to TBS’ Jamie Erdahl afterward. “I asked him before the game: ‘You going to be able to go?’ And he said: ‘I’m going.’”A week ago, not long after the pain in his foot first developed, the UK medical team had Washington’s left foot encased in a hard cast. He missed the team’s first-round NCAA game against Abilene Christian, and then a more challenging second-round win over Wofford.He told Erdahl each time she asked that his pain was significant. After he scored 16 points, shot 6 of 8 from the floor and delivered what could be considered a game-saving blocked shot with 36 seconds left and UK ahead by a point, he told her, “Right now, I can’t feel nothing.”Hear from John Calipari & PJ Washington after @KentuckyMBB gets the win over Houston to send them to the #Elite8. 🕺#MarchMadness | #Sweet16 pic.twitter.com/Gf0r8CiWfB— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 30, 2019A year ago, Washington had played on this same stage and performed brilliantly, in every department but one. He played all 40 minutes in that Sweet 16 game against Kansas State. He scored 18 points and grabbed 15 rebounds. But he went to the line for 20 free throws and only made eight. UK lost the game by just three points.This time, he was called upon to shoot two free throws with 3:51 left. He made them both to tie the score at 51. He got the ball in the post with 57 seconds left and UK down three. He scored on a jump-hook into his left shoulder, drawing a foul in the process. He missed that chance to tie the game from the line, but responded with that enormous block against Houston star Corey Davis Jr. It was a vicious rejection, but also gentle enough to remain inbounds for Wildcats freshman guard Tyler Herro to retrieve it.Exactly 11 seconds later, Herro bravely nailed a 3-pointer from the left wing and put UK ahead for good.PJ WASHINGTON BLOCKS. TYLER HERRO DROPS.Kentucky up two. pic.twitter.com/7yYtNJr4zQ— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 30, 2019MORE: Washington engineering Kentucky’s turnaroundAsked why he would play under these circumstances, Washington responded, “I had to. I didn’t want to let my teammates down. We had to win, so I just sucked it up.”Washington admitted he took some medicine for the pain before the game. “It kind of started hurting in the second half, but I have to tough through it,” he told reporters. “Through the end of the game, it was trying to cramp up. I’m definitely going back to get some treatment after this and try to get a good night’s sleep.”A Sporting News All-American primarily for his work in the regular season’s final six weeks, Washington was able to last 26 minutes against the Cougars. That wasn’t far off his per-game average of 29, but he’d gone 35 or more six times since Jan. 26 against Kansas.Make no mistake: The Wildcats needed him, not only to provide stability (point guard Ashton Hagans was limited to 26 minutes because of foul trouble) but also because the team was suffering in the second half from an overabundance of turnovers and dubious shots. There have been, through eight decades of NCAA Tournaments, 134 Kentucky Wildcats who have played in the Final Four, from superstars such as Jack “Goose” Givens in 1978 to walk-ons making ceremonial appearances such as Tod Lanter in 2015.PJ Washington is aching, literally, to be one of them.