On a wild Saturday night in Indianapolis, the Wisconsin Badgers earned a victory that’s significance rivals that of any other in program history.
The Badgers brought down previously unbeaten Kentucky 71-64 in a Final Four rematch at Lucas Oil Stadium, which not only ended the Wildcats’ quest for perfection, but also sent Wisconsin into the national championship game for the first time since 1941 and provided a cathartic win to a fan base that was still haunted by the memory of the Aaron Harrison 3-pointer that ended the Badgers’ season in last year’s Final Four.
But all of a sudden, Harrison’s cold-blooded dagger over the outstretched arm of Josh Gasser seems like a distant memory, as the Badgers have exorcised their Big Blue demons and now will get another crack at a Duke team that came into the Kohl Center earlier this season and beat them.
To earn that shot at its first national title in 74 years, Wisconsin had to put its extremely efficient offense on display against the country’s most formidable defense. It was a classic example of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, and this time, the unstoppable force was victorious.
According to Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency ratings, the Badgers not only boast the country’s most efficient offense this season, but also the most efficient offense since Pomeroy began tracking tempo-free statistics in 2002. They did more of the same Saturday night, scoring 1.23 points per possession against a Kentucky team that came into the night with the best defense of the KemPom era.
It was certainly an impressive feat, and one that was fueled by Wisconsin’s dynamic frontcourt duo of Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker.
Kaminsky recorded game highs of 20 points and 11 rebounds, putting forth yet another Wooden Award-caliber performance on his 22nd birthday.
As for Dekker, he continued his March Madness surge and pulled out some late-game heroics for a second straight game. Dekker scored 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting from the field, including 2-of-3 from 3-point range. This brought his total to 15-of-30 from beyond the arc during the NCAA Tournament. During the regular season, he had gone just 35-155 on 3-pointers.
He was also pivotal for the Badgers late in the second half, where they came up big as the Wildcats faltered in the waning minutes of the game.
Wisconsin went over seven minutes in the second half without a field goal, allowing Kentucky to use an 8-0 run to take a 60-56 lead. But with their backs against the wall, the Badgers showed off the kind of resiliency that has become a defining trait for this team, using a 15-4 run over the last 4:26 of regulation to dethrone the Wildcats.
This stretch included a huge triple from Dekker with under two minutes to go, which put UW ahead for good.
“We got down today a little bit, but we didn’t change our expression, we didn’t change what we did, we didn’t freak out,” Dekker said. “We knew if we played our game, we’d get back into it, come back, crawl back.”
After Dekker’s three, Wisconsin took care of business from the charity stripe and was provided with one more moment of catharsis when Harrison, the man who crushed their dreams of a national title one year ago, fouled out in the final seconds of the game.
But as thrilling and significant of a win as it was for the Badgers, they didn’t spend too much time celebrating, instead choosing to focus on their next challenge: squaring off against the Duke Blue Devils on Monday night.
In fact, as Gasser high-fived the Wisconsin student fans in attendance on his way back to the locker room, he had only one thing to say to them: “One more game, one more game.”
“Extremely proud of the way our guys hung in there when it looked like we dug ourselves a hole that we could never get out of,” UW head coach Bo Ryan said. “They’re just on a mission. This is such a special group. I have not been around a group quite like this.”