All season long, the Kentucky Wildcats had built up a certain aura, a certain mystique. Not only were they undefeated, but they had gotten out of several-late game jams to remain unblemished. The Harrison twins, just as they did last March, made key plays and clutch shots to help Kentucky advance in the tournament. Even if four or five McDonald’s Americans were having an off night, odds are that another four or five were not.
In short, the Wildcats were darn near impossible to beat.
And yet, Wisconsin beat them.
The Badgers emerged victorious in a Final Four classic Saturday, besting previously unbeaten Kentucky, 71-64, at Lucas Oil Stadium. Wisconsin (36-3) plays Duke (34-4) for the national championship Monday at 9:18 p.m. ET.
“I just think Wisconsin, having played Kentucky down to the wire and really feeling like the game was stolen from them last year when Aaron Harrison hit a three that was well behind the three-point line that was guarded – just a tough, tough shot,” USA Today college basketball writer Dan Wolken said on CBS Sports Radio’s After Hours with Amy Lawrence. “Yeah, it hurt, but they also knew that they could beat Kentucky, that they had basically done everything they needed to do to beat Kentucky except for one play, one shot. I think that confidence – and not only that, but just having veterans (was crucial). They’ve got guys who have been around for four (years), and in some cases even five years, who have played in a lot of NCAA Tournament games. They were ready. It was their moment. They believed it, and they had the experience to know they could do it.”
Wisconsin led for most of the second half but went six minutes without a point. The Badgers found themselves trailing by four in the final minutes but did not quit. They ended a game on a 15-4 run to advance to their first title game since 1941.
“When it counted, when they got down four in that game, they were able to pull themselves off the mat and make the plays they needed to make to win the game and played defense,” Wolken said. “They shut Kentucky down the last few minutes of that game. I think that was all borne out of the things that had built up over the course of the last year and a couple years.”
Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, as usual, led the way for Wisconsin. Kaminsky finished with 20 points, 11 rebounds, two assists and two blocks, while Dekker had 16 points and three rebounds.
“They’re very hard to score against, especially inside at the rim,” Wolken said of the Wildcats. “They’ve got a lot of length and height and shot-blocking. I think Kaminsky had very little trouble getting his shot up to the rim, being able to score over that height. That matters. They also were able to do good work on the boards. Wisconsin had more offensive rebounds than Kentucky. That’s one thing that teams got killed on was second-chance opportunities. Wisconsin beat Kentucky on the boards (34-22), and I think that’s really why they won the game.”
Wisconsin will now play Duke for the second time this season. The Blue Devils beat the Badgers, 80-70, in Madison on Dec. 3.
“There’s no question that people are going to look at that game and draw conclusions, but I don’t know that it has really much to do with anything,” Wolken said. “Duke’s a different team now. They’re a team that started very young. They’ve been up and down at certain points. They’re obviously playing great at the end of the season and they’ve improved on the defensive end. Wisconsin was different, too. Sam Dekker was playing somewhat injured in that game. He was really limited by an ankle injury. They’ve improved and changed as the season’s gone on too.
“I just . . . don’t really see any correlation between what happened that night and what’s going to happen (Monday),” Wolken continued. “Even though it could be the same result, I just don’t really know that either team is going to take that much from what happened several months ago. I really think it’s anybody’s game.”