When it was over, Austin Arians looked up at the contingent of Milwaukee fans in the stands still cheering in spite of the outcome.
The Panthers' stirring late-season run ended early Friday morning with a 73-53 loss to Villanova in the second round of the NCAA tournament, but it had been a season to remember and there was time for a smile.
"It's an awesome feeling when you are traveling from Milwaukee to Buffalo and Villanova's only traveling from Philly and we see as many fans as we had tonight," said Arians, who led Milwaukee with 17 points. "It's an awesome feeling to know that we had the support of Milwaukee behind us."
Milwaukee closed the season with five straight wins, including a surprising overtime victory against preseason favorite Green Bay in the Horizon League tournament, to surpass the 20-win plateau.
Not bad for a team that finished 8-24 a year ago. Milwaukee's 13-win increase was the best year-to-year improvement in the country, and the Panthers were the only team in the NCAA tournament that finished last in its league a year ago.
They showed they belonged on the big stage, too, leading a team ranked in the top 10 for much of the first half.
"Milwaukee, our fans, did a tremendous job this whole year sticking by us," senior guard Jordan Aaron said. "Coming off of last year, the season we had was very rough and they always stuck by us. They were our backbone and they traveled a long way to get here. We just definitely wanted to thank them for that."
Villanova went into the break with a 27-23 lead despite missing all 12 attempts from behind the arc, six by James Bell.
Villanova averaged nine 3s per game this season and shot 36.1 percent from long range, but the Wildcats allowed opponents to hit 35.4 percent of their 3-pointers and the Panthers took advantage, hitting five before the break to stay in the game.
Matt Tiby scored 10 for Milwaukee and Aaron, the team's leading scorer, finished with six points, all in the second half, on 1-of-15 shooting. Kyle Kelm, second in scoring, had eight points, all after the break.
Clearly, the Panthers weren't intimidated by the Big East regular-season champions, and J.J. Panoske hit an open 3 from the left wing to give Milwaukee a surprising 13-10 lead with 8 minutes left in the opening period.
The Panthers play in the Wisconsin style that coach Bo Ryan brought to Milwaukee before he took over the Badgers, whipping the ball around looking for the open man.
After Bell's steal and slam gave Villanova a 16-15 lead, a wide-open Arians hit consecutive 3-pointers from the right side for a 21-16 lead with 4:52 left as the Panthers' fans cheered.
The Wildcats finally settled down, holding the Panthers scoreless for the final 4:05 of the period.
Darrun Hilliard's three-point play tied it at 23, and a driving layup by Bell and a slam dunk by JayVaughn Pinkston put Villanova back on top.
"They do a nice job of fighting and being aggressive, and eventually they just wear you down, and I think that's what happened to us," Milwaukee coach Rob Jeter said. "They really kept us off balance most of the evening, and we weren't able to establish clean post looks and get to the free throw line when it mattered."
Hilliard scored 16 points and Pinkston added 13 for Villanova (29-4), the No. 2 seed in the East Region. The Wildcats will play seventh-seeded Connecticut (27-8) in the third round Saturday. The Huskies held off Saint Joseph's 89-81 in overtime.
Villanova was eager to get back on the court after being upset last week by Seton Hall in the Big East quarterfinals, but the effect of that loss seemed to linger.
A 14-point run spanning halftime gave the Wildcats a nine-point lead early in the second half and they gradually pulled away. Hilliard's long 3-pointer from the top of the key with 8:10 left gave them a 53-42 advantage, and the Panthers couldn't recover.
"I just look at it like this: For some reason with us, we win them, but we struggle when we're a high seed playing a second-round game," said coach Jay Wright, whose Wildcats failed to win a game in their last two tournament appearances. "Tough-fought game. That was not, as everybody who was here knows, a 20-point game."
Villanova outscored Milwaukee 46-20 in the paint and had 19 fast-break points to overcome a woeful 4-for-23 shooting performance from behind the arc.
If not for Hilliard's 11 points in the first half, who knows?
"They're a good defensive team, they really are," Wright said. "They're very smart about how they defend. They give you a shot you think is open, but then they're right on you. Darrun was the only guy that could get through their initial defense. He hit some tough shots in the lane. That was big for us. We were really struggling. He got us going."
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