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Wisconsin avenged last year’s heartbreaking Final Four loss to Kentucky and ended the Wildcats’ perfect season with a 71–64 victory in the national semifinals in Indianapolis on Saturday night.
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The Badgers trailed 60–56 with 6:37 left to play but outscored the Wildcats 15–4 to hand Kentucky its first loss after 38 consecutive wins to start the season. The Wildcats were bidding to become the first undefeated national champion in men’s Division I since Indiana in 1975–76.
“It hurts but I’m so proud of these kids,” Calipari told TBS’s Tracy Wolfson after the game. “Wisconsin was outstanding. I thought we had ‘em. And they didn’t go away. They played like we played, they just kept coming.”
Asked what he told his players, Calipari said, “I just told them no one’s ever going to do what you just did. It’s history and it’s not changing. It hurts because we were really close to doing something even more historic than 38 in a row.”
While Kentucky fell short of winning its ninth national title, it nonetheless became the first team ever to start a season 38–0. The Wildcats were making their fourth appearance in the Final Four in five years. They won the title in 2012 but lost in the semifinals in 2011 and the title game in 2013, to Connecticut.
National player of the year Frank Kaminsky led Wisconsin with 20 points. The game was tied at halftime at 36, and the Badgers had an eight-point second-half lead before the Wildcats rallied to go back in front.
Kentucky had beaten Wisconsin by one point at last year’s Final Four on a three-pointer in the final seconds by Aaron Harrison. This year it was the Badgers who made all the big shots down the stretch.
A jumper by Karl-Anthony Towns gave the Wildcats a 60–56 lead at the 6:37 mark, Kentucky’s biggest lead of the second half. A driving layup by Sam Dekker brought the Badgers within two, and Nigel Hayes tied the score at 60 with 2:35 to go on a putback layup. Replays appeared to show that Hayes’s follow shot came after the shot clock expired, but the officials did not overrule the initial call.
A missed shot by Andrew Harrison gave Wisconsin the ball back with two minutes left. Dekker then drilled a step-back three-pointer, giving the Badgers a lead they would not relinquish. Trey Lyles then turned it over for the Wildcats, and Dekker made a free-throw for a 64–60 advantage.
Aaron Harrison, the late-game hero of last year’s title game run for Kentucky, converted a three-point play to cut the deficit to one, but Kaminsky made two free-throws to restore a three-point edge with 25.4 seconds remaining. The Wildcats elected to go inside on their next possession, but Towns could only make 1-of-2 at the line, forcing Kentucky to foul. The Badgers scored their final eight points at the line overall, missing just twice, preventing Kentucky from having a shot to tie in the closing seconds.
Dekker, the Most Outstanding Player of the West Regional, finished with 16 points, while Hayes and Koenig each had 12. Towns led the Wildcats with 16 points, while Andrew Harrison had 13 and Aaron Harrison had 12, though only seven of the twins’ points came after halftime.
This is Wisconsin’s second appearance in the national championship game and its first since winning the third-ever NCAA tournament in 1941. The Badgers will face Duke, an 81–61 winner over Michigan State in Saturday’s first semifinal. The Blue Devils beat Wisconsin 80–70 in the ACC/Big Ten challenge on Dec. 3 in Madison.
Frank Kaminsky (22.2 points per game) and Sam Dekker (20.6) are the top two scorers in the NCAA tournament. Dekker is shooting 61.3% from the field in the tournament. Kaminsky, winner of the Oscar Robertson Trophy and AP Player of the Year, has had the best season in the sport and is a difficult matchup because of his versatility. Wisconsin has mastered being sound, poised and resilient. The Badgers have an historically efficient offense. They minimize fouls and turnovers. Against most teams, Duke can draw fouls when its players penetrate. Wisconsin can defend without fouling excessively. The Badgers are the more experienced team and will show no emotional hangover from Saturday’s victory over then-unbeaten Kentucky. In eight postseason games, the Badgers are shooting 63.8% in the final five minutes of games.
NCAA Tournament: National title preview
Why Duke Will Win: The Blue Devils have already beaten the Badgers once — by 10 points in Madison on Dec. 3 — although Dekker was not 100% in the matchup. Duke’s defense is much better now. It has held five tournament opponents to 55 points per game on 37.4% shooting. Jahlil Okafor had a strong game (18 points) against Michigan State. Duke’s guards can bury three-pointers or drive hard to the basket to draw contact. The trio of star freshmen — Okafor, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow — showed no nerves in the first meeting and has performed quite well in the Final Four. Duke is the only team in the NCAA with three freshmen averaging double figures in scoring.
History Lesson: Bo Ryan is 4–0 in NCAA title games, having won all four of his championship game appearances with Wisconsin-Platteville in Division III. The Badgers won their only NCAA title game appearance, defeating Washington State, 39–34, in 1941 title. Krzyzewski has led Duke to nine NCAA title game appearances, second-most in NCAA history. Coach Mike Krzyzewski has already won two of his four national championships, in 2010 and 1991, here in Indianapolis.
It might not have be the national championship everyone wanted, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be a classic. In fact, Vegas is counting on it. Monday’s national championship game between Duke and Wisconsin opened as a pick’em after Wisconsin’s stunning win over 38–0 Kentucky on Saturday night. Though the line will surely fluctuate over the next 45 hours, expect a tight game, which is a nice consolation for anyone who was geared up to see Kentucky vs. Duke. (Well, except Kentucky fans.)
What’s up for grabs besides the plaque and nets: Wisconsin scoring its first title since 1941, eight months before Pearl Harbor and Mike Krzyzewski getting his fifth title and bragging rights for one of the best college basketball seasons in recent memory. (Sorry, Kentucky. For what it’s worth, Kentucky was expected to a 6-point favorite over Duke, which is more than Kentucky was favored over Wisconsin. That’s a little weird and suggests Duke gets a Cowboys-like bump in the sports books.)
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The good news for Duke: The Blue Devils are peaking at the exact right time, crushing Michigan State by 20 points and getting themselves just 40 minutes away from the title.
The good news for Wisconsin: They just beat the best team in college basketball.
The bad news for whichever team ends up as the underdog (if one does): Underdogs have not fared well recently in the NCAA final.
As Bryan Armen Graham pointed out, rare is the NCAA championship upset. Only four teams in the past 26 years have done it: 2006 Florida (+1), 2003 Syracuse (+5.5), 1999 UConn (+9.5) and 1997 Arizona (+7).
More bad news for Wisconsin: The teams played back in December, in a rare true road game for Coach K and the Dukies. They promptly went into the Kohl Center and won by 10 points. But this Final Four so far has been about revenge for Wisconsin, who lost to Kentucky in last year’s national semifinals and righted the wrong on Saturday. Duke, meanwhile, is back in the title game for the first time in five years.
In that case, a pick ’em sounds just about right.