ARLINGTON, Texas -- Wisconsin got the shot it wanted with time winding down against Kentucky on Saturday night.
Traevon Jackson created some space off the dribble, stepped back and got a good look inside the 3-point arc with the game on the line.
“Once it was out of my hands, I thought it had a chance to go in,” Jackson said.
But the buzzer sounded as the ball bounded off the glass, off the rim and out.
“He got in his favorite position,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. “I felt pretty good that he was able to get to that spot where he’s hit shots before. It just didn’t go.”
The fact that it came down to that final shot is a testament to Wisconsin’s resilience.
There was a time, early in the second half when it looked like the Badgers’ Final Four experience might end with a Kentucky-blue wave washing them out in a rout. The Wildcats, fresh off a timeout called in the first minute of the half, jacked up the tempo and went on a 15-0 run that might have crushed most teams.
Wisconsin, as it has shown throughout this entire tournament, is not like most teams. It's not like Kentucky, either. Kentucky is faster. The Wildcats are longer. They have more depth. And they’ve got more players ready to put on suits and shake the NBA commissioner’s hands at the draft soon, too.
But the Wildcats needed all of it to pull off a 74-73 victory over a pesky and tough Wisconsin team making its first Final Four appearance since 2000. But the big run wasn’t the reason Kentucky is going to play UConn on Monday night for the national championship. Kentucky is in that game because it made the critical shot at the end --– an NBA-range 3-pointer from Aaron Harrison, a player whom big games always seem to find -- and the Badgers didn’t.
“They did everything they were supposed to do to win the game and we hit a ridiculous shot,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “And the shot they took -- if it banks in, they win. It was a heck of a game.”
No question about that. But the final sequence didn’t go the Badgers’ way, leaving Ryan to console his team.
“I really loved coaching this team,” Ryan said. “I knew there was something in there, and getting it out of them was sometimes a challenge, but they answered it. They answered everything, and that’s how we got here.”
What they didn’t have an answer for on Saturday was how to get forward Frank Kaminsky more involved. The 7-foot junior was dominant in the Badgers’ road to Arlington. He had 19 points against Oregon and Baylor and then poured in 28 points and 11 rebounds in the overtime win over Arizona. His play earned him the NCAA West region’s most outstanding player award.
Calipari’s plan was to run a lot of different players at Kaminsky in hopes of slowing him down. It worked. Kaminsky had just eight points in 32 minutes and attempted only seven shots.
Kentucky used its size down low, penetrating inside and trying to dump the ball in to Randle and others whenever possible. Wisconsin, as Ryan pointed out, tried to get bodies in front of those cutting to the hoop. But if a foul wasn’t called in their favor, it meant the Badgers weren’t in position to box out and get rebounds.
“That’s why they had all those second-chance points,” Ryan said.
It was 23, to be exact. Kentucky was so intent on playing the game inside that it didn’t attempt but five 3-pointers the entire game, making just two of them. In fact, they were 1-for-2 in the second half, with Harrison’s winning shot -- Calipari called him the “assassin, making the shot that is the dagger shot” -- the only one the Wildcats made from behind the arc.
Calipari was visibly relieved to still be playing on Monday after another close game, and Wisconsin must deal with the reality that a season that included a streak of five of six losses in February and then a run of 13 wins in the final 16 games, ends in the Final Four.
“I’m extremely proud of these guys,” said Ryan, who was making his first Final Four appearance with the Badgers. “When it comes down to a one-possession game, the last possession always seems so magnified. We just came up one short. We’ve been on the other end of those. We know that it’s like. It’s hard. It means we’re done playing for the year.”