By TOM LEA
CHICAGO — Ryan Evans held his head high, put one foot in front of another and slowly, albeit confidently, walked off the United Center floor.
He approached the tunnel area that brings him under the stands and into the arena innards, hallways that eventually escorted him to the locker room where his teammates were busy celebrating an impressive 68-56 win over No. 1 seeded (and No. 3 ranked) Indiana.
But everything about his strut off the court was familiar.
In fact, it was no different than his walk when he leaves the Kohl Center court after a win — aside from the five autographs he signed for a handful of adoring young fans.
As soon as he got out of the public eye, the Wisconsin senior that just scored a game-high 16 points on 7-of-12 shooting started sprinting through those same hallways, presumably in an anxious rush to enjoy the moment with his teammates.
When he arrived in the locker room — a cramped room more reminiscent of a space reserved for high school sporting teams — he managed to enjoy a brief celebration. There were high fives, hugs and plenty of hooting and hollering.
But then he, along with fellow senior starters Jared Berggren and Mike Bruesewitz, made it clear the job wasn’t done.
Who cares that this Badgers team just reeled off its second-straight win over a top 10 nationally ranked conference foe in as many days? There is still plenty left to prove and plenty left to validate the two wins UW has added to its ever-improving NCAA tournament resume.
“We’re beating solid teams, but we haven’t got it yet,” Evans, who also secured eight rebounds, dished four assists, blocked four shots and recorded a steal, said. “We all understand that. We all enjoy moments like this, but you can’t live through them forever unless you actually get the rings.
“We understand that. We’ll be able to answer that question better Sunday.”
That’s when the Badgers, a squad analysts picked to finish seventh in the Big Ten conference when the season began, will play No. 2 seeded (and No. 10 ranked) Ohio State for the Big Ten tournament championship.
It’s because of what lies ahead that this Wisconsin team was in no mood to discuss what they’ve accomplished over the past two days. When tournament time rolls around there’s no time to focus on the games you’ve won or who you've beat. When you do that you forget to utilize your time in a more efficient manner, because the deeper you go in a tournamet the tougher the competition gets.
You want to keep it going. You want to immediately start preparing for the next 40 minutes you’re allowed to play.
So Wisconsin took a business-like approach during the 30 minutes the locker room was open to members of the media. Questions were asked about the way game unfolded, how Sam Dekker went on a personal 7-0 run midway through the second half to help the Badgers pull away and the fact UW held Indiana — the Big Ten’s highest scoring team — to a season low 56 points on 38.2 percent shooting.
Sure the Badgers spent a good amount of time laughing and enjoying the win, but for the most part the sentiment was somewhat subdued. If Wisconsin were in charge of giving itself a grade for the way the weekend has gone, it would most likely give itself an incomplete.
“It’s been a fun journey and a fun ride (this weekend),” senior Mike Bruesewitz said. “It hasn’t set in because our work isn’t done yet. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fun to get (to the championship), but it’s not so great if you don’t come away with it. We’ve got to get our ducks in a row, make sure we get back to the hotel and take care of everything.
“(If we) take care of business tomorrow then we can talk about me being satisfied.”
From seasoned veterans all the way down to ambitious freshman, UW players understood the magnitude of what they’ve accomplished and shared what their inspiration has been so far in this tournament. But they didn’t brag or boast about it. They didn’t mention the fact their program has now won 12-straight games against Indiana, including both meetings this season.
They mentioned how beating Indiana never gets old, but that was in passing and only when prompted.
If the same focus Wisconsin played with on the court Saturday afternoon can be envisioned as its mindset entering championship Sunday then that’s what was going on inside the locker room. Sure UW has beat Michigan and Indiana in back-to-back days.
But as Traevon Jackson pointed out, nobody remembers a nice run in the conference tournament when you finish in second place.
“We’re one step closer,” senior forward Jared Berggren added. “That’s all we could do today. Go out there and try to put a good 40 minutes together. We were able to do that and come out with a win. The opportunity (for a championship) is there now. We’re right there. We’ve just got to go out there and seal the deal.
“We put ourselves in position with two good wins over two good teams. We just look forward to the opportunity to win a championship and hopefully we can bring it home.”
Considering how this weekend has played out for the Badgers would you feel comfortable picking against them?