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Nigel Hayes played his best game when Wisconsin needed him most

This is the Nigel Hayes that Wisconsin fans have been waiting for.

It’s been a roller-coaster season for Nigel Hayes, the Wisconsin Badgers senior who was supposed to have the best year of his career. And for one minute on Saturday, it looked like he might end his college career on a sour note, committing a silly foul that threatened to bury the Badgers. Instead, he was the hero of Wisconsin’s stunning upset victory over the defending champion Villanova Wildcats, scoring the game-winning bucket.

With 37 seconds left in the game and the Badgers up one, Hayes fouled Donte DiVincenzo while the ball was flying out of bounds after deflecting off a Wildcats player. Had Hayes not committed the foul, Wisconsin would have kept the ball up one. It was a gut-wrenching moment for Wisconsin fans.

But DiVincenzo only made one shot, and Hayes had a chance to redeem himself at the other end. When Wisconsin needed a bucket most, Hayes took the responsibility on himself and produced his biggest play of the season.

Hayes was the preseason Big Ten Player of the Year but failed to live up to the hype, scoring at a lower clip than he did in his junior year. He didn’t improve from beyond the arc and struggled from the free throw line. And his average play was a microcosm of Wisconsin’s season — a team with four seniors surrounding an All-American sophomore at center was supposed to be much better than an No. 8 seed.

It took a long time for Hayes and the Badgers to deliver a performance like Saturday’s in a big moment, but after they took down the defending champs and No. 1 overall seed, everything that happened prior doesn’t matter. Hayes came up with 19 points and eight rebounds, leading Wisconsin in both categories, and followed up a mental error in the final minute with the game-winning play.

This was the Nigel Hayes that we’ve been waiting to see. And as long as he’s playing like this, no one will want to come up against the Badgers.