Port’s Gasser embraces March Madness frenzy as key player in Wisconsin’s pursuit of national crown
The beat goes on for the Wisconsin Badgers, and Josh Gasser hopes it never ends.
At least not until next week, after he and his teammates have a chance to celebrate an NCAA Division I basketball championship.
“It’s been crazy, absolutely amazing,” said Gasser, the former Port Washington High School standout who helped Wisconsin rally past Arizona, 64-63, in overtime in the West Regional final
last Saturday and secure a trip to the Final Four in Arlington, Texas.
“We won a game to go the Final Four, and we knew it wasn’t going to be easy. We just had to hang in there and keep playing hard. We did what we had to do to win.”
For Gasser, a starting guard on the No. 2-seeded Badgers, the victory capped a whirlwind weekend filled with high basketball drama, an earthquake, locker-room visits from a Green Bay Packers star and a welcome-home pep rally attended by a throng of UW faithful at the Kohl Center in Madison.
After cruising past Baylor, 69-52, in a regional semifinal game Thursday, Wisconsin faced its toughest test of the season to date against top-seeded Arizona at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. Living up to advanced billing, the game went down to the wire.
The Badgers missed a potential winning shot at the end of regulation to heighten the suspense. Center Frank Kaminsky carried most of the offensive load for Wisconsin with a game-high 28 points, but Gasser’s five points included three in overtime.
With Wisconsin clinging to a one-point lead, the junior also drew an offensive foul from Arizona’s Nick Johnson that gave the Badgers possession with 3.2 seconds left.
“He had a full head of steam coming at me, and I knew he was going to try to make a play and score,” said Gasser, Wisconsin’s top defensive guard.
“I was able to kind of read what he was going to do and felt him push off. I was trying to contest the shot, and fortunately, the referee made the call.”
A deflected pass on an inbounds play by the Badgers led to a controversial call that gave Arizona the ball back, but the Wildcats were unable to get off another shot in the final seconds.
“It was a dogfight for the whole five minutes,” Gasser said of the overtime. “We just happened to make one more play than they did.”
As the final horn sounded, Wisconsin players, coaches and fans erupted in a frenzied celebration. In a matter of minutes, Gasser and his teammates hoisted high a regional championship trophy, cut down a net and embraced each other with an ebullience that could only come from prevailing in a pressure-packed quest.
The win gave Bo Ryan his first Final Four trip in 13 seasons as the Badgers’ head coach and Wisconsin’s first since 2000. It also came eight months after the death of Butch Ryan, the coach's father and biggest fan.
“He deserves it. I wanted to win it for a lot of people — family, friends, teammates, coaches — but he was the main guy,” Gasser said of his coach. “Thank goodness we got it for him.”
Amid the post-game revelry in the Wisconsin locker room, Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers stopped by to offer congratulations. Rodgers did the same following the Baylor game, greeting players, posing for photos and offering words of support.
“At first, I did a double-take and then realized it was Aaron Rodgers,” Gasser said.
“He started giving people high fives in the tunnel on the way to the locker room. We were able to talk with him for a little while.
“He’s really a good guy, really down to earth. It was cool to have him around.”
The celebration came 24 hours after Wisconsin players experienced a rumbling of another kind. A 5.1-magnitude earthquake centered in Los Angeles was felt by Gasser and his teammates while they were relaxing at their hotel Friday night.
“It was a pretty crazy situation. I was watching the Michigan State game on TV with Ben Brust and Evan Anderson, and our room just started shaking,” Gasser said.
“We had no idea what was going on, but we were pretty scared, actually. We sprinted down the stairs and tried to look for help.
“But all the people who live out there kind of laughed at us because they’re used to that stuff happening.”
With a wild California weekend fresh in their minds, Gasser and his teammates flew back to Madison Sunday and were hustled to the Kohl Center. More than 7,000 fans turned out to show their support during a brief program acknowledging the team’s achievement and urging the Badgers to stay on their tournament roll.
“It was really a fun moment. We got a chance to talk to the crowd a little bit and show our appreciation for them,” Gasser said.
But by Sunday night, the focus was already turning to the next mission. Awaiting the Badgers in a national semifinal game will be a young, tough Kentucky team, fresh off a 75-72 upset win over Michigan in the Midwest
Regional final that afternoon.
Wisconsin (30-7) and Kentucky (28-10) will play at 7:49 p.m. CST Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
The winner will face the winner of a 5:09 p.m. Saturday semifinal between Florida (36-2) and Connecticut (30-8) for the championship at 8 p.m. Monday, April 7.
“Kentucky will be tough. They’re playing better than anyone in the whole tournament right now,” Gasser said.
“We’ll have to play our best to beat them.”
After practicing in Madison early this week, the Badgers flew to Texas on Wednesday to begin preparing for another frenzy that is sure to accompany the Final Four experience. Staying focused amid a crush of media, fans and
other distractions will be a challenge, one Ryan wasted no time addressing.
“A funny thing happened after the game (Saturday),” Gasser said. “I took kind of a bad shot in the second half, and afterward when we were cutting down the net, I gave coach a hug and said he deserved the win.
“He looked at me and said, ‘I’m still mad at you for taking that shot.’ He was half-joking, but he was still the same old coach Ryan, always trying to critique and look at stuff to improve on.
“He’s always trying to get us ready for the next game.”
WISCONSIN GUARD Josh Gasser drove past Arizona’s T.J. McConnell during Saturday’s NCAA West Regional championship game. Gasser, a former Port Washington High School standout, helped the Badgers rally for an overtime win. Photo by David Stluka