Sam Dekker (let) consoles Ben Brust after the Badgers' Final Four loss to Kentucky.
(2) Kentucky 74, UW 73: Road ends
By ZACH HEILPRIN
ARLINGTON, Texas - Bo Ryan will tell you that it’s not just the last possession or two of the game that tells the story. The coach believes that there are so many others in a game that determine the outcome. But in the University of Wisconsin’s 74-73 loss to Kentucky on Saturday night the last two possessions are the only ones that mattered afterwards. The Wildcats were successful in theirs and the Badgers were not. And for that reason the eighth-seeded Cats are going on to face Connecticut in the title game on Monday and UW is heading home.
“When it comes down to a one-possession game, the last possession's always seemed so magnified,” Ryan said after his team lost to a non-Big Ten team for the first time this season. “But there was 60, 70, 80 possessions in there and a lot of those ended up being the possessions that were more crucial. We just came up one short.”
His eyes red and puffy from experiencing what comes with the finality of the situation, Josh Gasser sat in his locker with cameras and microphones in his face. Seconds earlier the junior was consoling an inconsolable Evan Anderson – the emotion of what happened no more than 15 minutes earlier still clinging to him and bubbling up to the surface.
An admirable effort against UK’s Aaron Harrison lost because of the freshman pulling up from NBA 3-point range and – like he did to beat Michigan in the regional final -- drilling a shot with a hand in his face to give the Wildcats a one-point lead with 5.7 seconds left.
“I don’t’ know if he made an (outside) shot all game,” said Gasser, who was expecting Harrison to drive after not seeing him take a 3-pointer all game. “I was covering him the entire game and he didn’t really look to pull (up for a shot). I could kind of see in his eyes he wanted to make a play. Tried to contest it the best I could and he made another tough shot.”
UK’s John Calipari said the plan was to get the ball in Harrison’s hands despite him shooting just 2 of 7 prior to that. He could have gone with James Young, who led the Wildcats with 17 points. Or he could have called on Julius Randle, who had 16 points down low. But he gave it to Harrison and believed he’d get it done.
“I trust those kids,” Calipari said. “See, guys that make game winners are not afraid to miss them, and he’s not afraid to miss. If he misses, give me another one. I’ll make another one. The best players I’ve had that play that way and can make those kind of plays, they have amnesia from play to play.”
That same amnesia description has been used on Traevon Jackson. One bad play or missed shot doesn’t faze him. And UW was hoping that would be the case again. Wisconsin’s two-point lead before Harrison’s shot could have been three. But Jackson made just two of the three free throws he was awarded after getting fouled on a 3-pointer. It was the only miss of the night from the line (19 of 20) for the Badgers.
Given a chance to play the hero, like he had so many times before, Jackson took the inbounds pass, drove the length of the court and pulled up from just inside the 3-point line.
“I thought once it was out of my hands I thought it had a chance to go in,” Jackson said. “But at that point when I seen it didn't go in, it just was a shock more than sadness at that point, so...
You make some, you miss some.”
The shot was one that Jackson is known for. The mid-range pull-up is a staple of the junior’s game and no one had an issue with the ball being in his hands or his decision-making.
“He doesn’t have to say anything. The ball just didn’t go in,” said Frank Kaminsky. “You can’t be mad at someone for taking a shot like that, that he’s made before in his career and it not falling for him. There’s nothing you can really say.”
The ball clanged off the backboard and the rim and into the arms of a Kentucky player – taking with it the Badgers dream season. A run to the schools third Final Four in history came to a screeching halt, and the same jubilation that the Wildcats and their fans were feeling, was just the opposite of the story the faces of the UW players told.
“These guys, they’re like brothers to me,” Gasser said as he looked around the locker room. “I love these guys so much. We wanted to finish it off and it sucks we didn’t do it, especially for the seniors. These are guys I came in with, so it’s really hard on us right now.”
It’s made harder by what was at stake. The second-seeded Badgers made it within two-inches of playing on Monday night for their first title in 73 years. An opportunity to put to rest the idea that Wisconsin is the slow and plodding team that lost an ugly 53-41 national semifinal game to Michigan State in 2000. They hung with a team that could have seven players taken in the NBA Draft in June and UW looked like they belong among the nations elite.
They can be proud of withstanding a 15-0 run by the Wildcats to start the second half by answering with a 15-4 run of their own that featured eight points off the bench from junior Duje Dukan. They’ll look back at how resilient they were and how they stuck together. The 15 points from Sam Dekker and the 11 they got from freshman Bronson Koenig.
But they’ll also lament giving up 46 points in the paint, 23 second-chance points and not being able to close out a game they led by five with 6:17 to go.
“We had a chance to go to the national championship,” Gasser said. “One point away, one possession away. That’s never easy. No matter what game it is but to come this far with these guys it’s just never easy to lose a game in this fashion especially when we have a chance to play for a title.”
And they may again. Only Ben Brust, who scored 15 points in his final game, doesn’t return to a lineup that won the third most games in school history. But it won’t be the same group. It won’t be the group that helped Ryan deal with the loss of his father, Butch, last August, or the group that grew together during an exhibition tour in Canada and essentially lived together at a campus apartment complex. A group that started 16-0, lost five of six before catching fire and going deeper in the NCAA tournament than any Ryan team had before. That’s what made the tears and emotion inside the locker room so much more than a normal end to a season.
“It’s hard. It means we’re done playing for the year,” Ryan said. “I really love coaching this team. I knew they had something in them (and) it was just trying to get it out of them sometimes that was a little bit of a challenge. But they answered. They answered everything. And that’s how we got here.”
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin