Max Kleismit helps lead Wisconsin past Liberty with vocal performance in final minutes of second-round NIT game

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Kamari McGee congratulates Chuckie Hepburn of the Wisconsin Badgers after the score during the first half of the game against the Liberty Flames in the second round of the NIT Men’s Basketball Tournament.

MADISON — Max Kleismit has contributed in a myriad of ways in his first season at Wisconsin.

The gritty junior guard out of Ninah High School shone brightest late Sunday night at the Kohl Center to help the Badgers keep their season alive.

Klesmit scored all seven of his points in the final 2 minutes 11 seconds to help UW rally past Liberty, 75–71, in the second round of the NIT in front of an active crowd of 10,436.

“He had some big buckets for us down the stretch,” said sophomore Chuckie Hepburn. “We all trust him. We all trust him. We all trust him.”

The Badgers were 0 of 14 from three-point range when Kleismit hit a three-pointer with 2:11 remaining to give UW a 68–67 lead. After UW coach Greg Gard called a timeout with 48.9 seconds left, Klesmit received the ball on a designed play and scored on a left-handed drive with 42.7 seconds left to give UW a 72–71 lead. .

“It’s good to see the growth because we ran the perfect game against Rutgers and it didn’t end,” the guard said. “Today he was able to finish. I’m happy for him.”

Kleismit closed out the scoring and got the win – after a terrific defensive sequence from Carter Gilmore – by hitting two free throws with six seconds left.

As a result, the Badgers (19–14) won consecutive games for the first time since December 30 and January 3 and advanced to the quarterfinal round against either top-seeded Oregon or Central Florida on Tuesday or Wednesday.

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

Liberty finished the season 27–9.

box score: Wisconsin 75, Liberty 71

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

Steven Crowell shot 7 of 8 shots and scored 14 points in the opening half, coming off a 36-point, nine-rebound performance in the opening round. He was assessed a flagrant 1 and a technical with 49.5 seconds left in the half, however, he was given three fouls.

Crowell said, “I shouldn’t have reacted to what I did.” “I reacted very poorly. That’s on me.}

He picked up his fourth foul – a charge – with 10:35 left in the game and remained there for 3:27. Crowell’s last basket came with 7:10 remaining in the first half and he finished with 14 points, two rebounds and two assists.

Hepburn, who had a combined nine points on 3-for-16 shooting over the past two games, started off the dribble and often attacked the lane against the Liberty’s small guards. He scored 19 points in the opening half to help UW build a 37–34 lead, and finished with 27 points.

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

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“Certainly Chuckie’s game was great,” Crowell said. “He was going to the line. We thought he might get down because his guards were a little short. Obviously, he executed.”

Tyler Wahl, limited to 17 minutes against Bradley in the opening round because of nagging groin and a sore knee, contributed 16 points and six rebounds in 32-plus minutes.

Connor Essejian hit 1 of 2 free throws and added seven points to give UW a 73–71 lead with 24 seconds left. Kamari Magee and Jordan Davis added two each.

Carter Gilmore missed his only field-goal attempt and went scoreless with 22:29 remaining. But he grabbed five rebounds and made perhaps the biggest defensive play of the game against senior guard Darius McGhee on the Liberty’s final possession.

McGhee, a three-time player of the year at ASUN, entered the season averaging 22.6 points per game and shooting 39.9% from three-point range.

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

Yet he missed his final shot as Gilmore refused to allow the basket to be seen deep or clear of the way.

Gilmore was with UW holding a 73–71 lead for Crowell when he switched to McGhee with 17.8 seconds left. McGhee turned his back on the people, drove right, tried to get back left in the lane, and drove right again. Gilmore stayed with him and forced a tough floater with 12.1 seconds remaining.

Klesmit came in with a loose ball, was fouled, and hit two free throws.

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“All I have to say is that Gilly has been an invaluable piece to our team,” said the guard. “An example. Move your feet…

“He did a great of keeping it in front of him as much as he could and when he got to the rim he let them come through the body. He doesn’t have any stats for that, but it was a big play for us.”

Senior forward Kyle Rhode was the only other Liberty player to score in double digits. He hit 4 of 7 three-pointers and finished with 16 points. His last miss came on a wide-open three-point attempt with UW in the lead, 72–71.

“We’re taught that if it’s a good shot for you, we’ll live with the result either way,” said Rode, a 39.9% three-point shooter. “So, 100%. Take it all day.”

Rode’s miss, followed by a missed tip-in and Gilmore’s standout defensive sequence helped UW survive and advance.

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

More: Wisconsin plays Liberty on Sunday in NIT, hopes to win title

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This article originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin held Liberty in final minutes of second round NIT game