Wisconsin’s Chucky Hepburn savors 2nd chance at March Madness after exiting with injury 2 years ago

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin’s Chucky Hepburn has a knack for playing his best when the lights are the brightest.

He didn’t expect to have to wait this long to return to college basketball’s biggest stage.

Hepburn’s freshman season ended when he injured his ankle early in an NCAA Tournament second-round loss to Iowa State. Two years later, Hepburn finally gets a second chance at March Madness when No. 23 Wisconsin (22-13) faces James Madison (31-3) on Friday at Brooklyn, New York.

“I don’t want to just go make March Madness,” Hepburn said Monday. “I want to make a deep run in this tournament.”

Hepburn is accustomed to playing a lead role in these kinds of runs.

He played in three Nebraska state championship games and won one title during his high school career at Bellevue West. He highlighted his freshman year at Wisconsin by banking in a tiebreaking 3-pointer with 1.5 seconds left in a victory over then-No. 8 Purdue that enabled the Badgers to clinch a share of the Big Ten regular-season title.

“He’s never been afraid of the moment,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said.

Hepburn’s value to Wisconsin’s program became evident the last time the Badgers reached the NCAA Tournament. With Hepburn playing just 14 minutes against Iowa State, the Badgers lost 54-49 while committing a season-high 17 turnovers and producing their lowest single-game point total since November 2018.

“Not being able to fight out there with my brothers was definitely tough,” Hepburn said. “Now I’m more experienced.”

And now he finally gets another NCAA Tournament experience.

Wisconsin had to settle for an NIT appearance last year. The 6-foot-2 guard spent the offseason polishing his game and making sure Wisconsin wouldn’t get left out of the dance again.

Hepburn is scoring just 9.3 points per game, down from 12.2 last season. But he has improved his numbers in just about every other category and is shooting a career-high 43.1%, up from 37.7% last year.

“You don’t see him taking those hoist shots at the end of shot clocks anymore,” Gard said. “He’s inside the paint. He’s in there, he’s got a midrange game. He’s got little floaters.”

Hepburn also has set career highs in assists (3.9), rebounds (3.4) and steals (2.1) while reducing his turnovers. And he proved at the Big Ten Tournament last week he can still score in bunches.

After missing a quarterfinal victory over Northwestern due to a lower-body injury, Hepburn came up huge in the final two runs.

In a 76-75 semifinal triumph over then-No. 3 Purdue, Hepburn scored a season-high 22 points, made a layup at the buzzer to force overtime and drew an offensive foul that set up Max Klesmit’s winning basket.

He followed that up by scoring 20 points in a 93-87 championship game loss to then-No. 13 Illinois. Before the Big Ten Tournament, Hepburn hadn’t scored as many as 20 points in a game since Wisconsin’s season-opening victory over Arkansas State.

What has caused his increased assertiveness in the postseason?

“Thirsty for blood, that’s all I’ve got to say,” Hepburn said. “Thirsty for blood.”

Gard said he saw Hepburn’s leadership skills reach another level as Wisconsin struggled late in the regular season, losing eight of 11 games. Hepburn’s efforts paid off when the Badgers regained their footing last week.

The Badgers hope that sets the tone for the rest of their season.

“Just tired of losing,” Hepburn explained. “We went through that same stretch last year and I didn’t want the same thing to happen again, so I knew a leader needed to step up and I knew that had to be me coming from the point guard (position). A lot of guys look to me to say something, and it was time to start stepping up.”

Hepburn’s always known when to step up. This is his time of year.

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