Johnny Davis was being held in check as he and his Wisconsin teammates watched their Maui Invitational hopes fade, trailing by 10 points early in the second half.
But just like the effort by tournament officials to pretend the tournament was still in Hawaii, Wisconsin being in trouble was a mirage.
Davis and the Badgers rallied to beat Saint Mary’s 61-55 in Wednesday’s championship game at Michelob Ultra Arena.
The title capped an unexpected run for Wisconsin (5-1), which was picked by the Big Ten media to finish 1oth in the conference. But then the Badgers got to Las Vegas and beat Texas A&M, No. 12 Houston and then Saint Mary’s (6-1).
“The grit and resilience that this group has developed and grown and the chemistry that they’ve shown … I couldn’t be more proud of them,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. “I think we are watching this group grow up right in front of our eyes.”
Davis scored 30 points in the victory over Houston. But at one point in the first half against St. Mary’s, he went more than 11 minutes without a shot thanks to the ability of the Gaels’ Logan Johnson to deny him.
“He’s one of the best defensive guards in college basketball,” Saint Mary’s Randy Bennett said.
Johnson, however, picked up his fourth foul midway through the second half and went to the bench. He came back with 6:35 left, but did not immediately guard Davis, who made a layup and 3-pointer to put the Badgers ahead for good at 48-46.
By the time Johnson went back on Davis with about four minutes left, Davis and the Badgers had momentum. Davis finished with 20 points and seven rebounds. Teammate Tyler Wahl added 18 points.
“I thought we were playing too much one-on-one basketball,” Davis said. “Once we started swinging (the ball) and started to play our game and not their game, that’s when we really started to get rolling.”
Three players reached double figures for the Gaels — Alex Ducas (13 points), Johnson (12) and Dan Fotu (11). But after shooting 50 percent as a team in the first half, Saint Mary’s shot just 16.7 percent in the second half as a 37-27 lead slipped away.
The Maui Invitational was relocated for the second year in a row because of strict COVID-19 restrictions in Hawaii. The tournament was in Asheville, North Carolina, last year.
Officials hope to return to the islands next year. But no matter the location, Wisconsin is more than satisfied capturing what generally is considered the nation’s top holiday tournament.
“Obviously, this is a good early-season accomplishment. But as I mentioned to them in the locker room, this is only the beginning,” Gard said. “We’ve still got a long ways to go.”