Perfection Denied: What Went Wrong for UK as Wisconsin Spoils Dream Season

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterApril 5, 2015

Darron Cummings/AP Images

INDIANAPOLIS — The shot left Aaron Harrison's hand and we had all seen this story before.

This was the man who took down Louisville, took down Michigan and took down Wisconsin with that same confident stroke in one of the clutchest stretches in the history of the NCAA tournament a year ago.

But this time the deficit was four, the shot too short, the seconds ticking painfully away.

Apr 4, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Kentucky Wildcats guard Aaron Harrison (2) shoots a three-point shot over Wisconsin Badgers guard Josh Gasser (21) in the second half of the 2015 NCAA Men's Division I Championship semi-final game at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

"Me and Andrew, especially me, let my team down," Harrison said. "I didn't hit the big shots that I'm supposed to hit. I'm supposed to be the guy to put them away, and I didn't."

The greatest run in the modern era of college basketball ended on Saturday night in Indianapolis in a beautiful 40 minutes of basketball that had just had to end with Kentucky on the wrong side of history, 71-64.

The NCAA tournament is cruel. It does not care about destiny. It does not care about 40-0.

Someday, maybe, the Wildcats will look back on this 38-1 season and realize that greatness is not always defined by cutting down the nets on Monday night.

Sometimes UNLV loses to Duke. 

Sometimes a shot goes in after the shot clock ends unnoticed by the men in stripes, as it did for Wisconsin's Nigel Hayes when it looked like perfection would stretch on for at least one more night. 

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

That awkward pause, realizing Hayes' shot counted and tied the game at 60, will forever haunt the Wildcats. 

"It sucked the air completely out of us," Harrison said. "But there's bad calls in basketball all the time."

And this was the team that for 38 games was not shaken by bad calls. You could not scare the Wildcats. You could not put them on their heels.

Notre Dame tried, and Kentucky finished the Irish off by burying nine straight shots to pull off one of the most memorable Elite Eight wins ever.

But this time around, the finishing strategy was flawed and the execution shaky.

Like they had learned nothing from how Notre Dame blew its lead seven days prior, the Wildcats played the final minutes on Saturday night trying to use every second on the shot clock.

What Kentucky wanted was the ball to end up in the hands of Karl-Anthony Towns, the most talented man on the floor, who will be one of his first to have his name called at the NBA Draft in June.

"We knew they were gonna get the ball to the big fella, Towns," Wisconsin guard Josh Gasser said. "We wanted to make it hard on him and not let him catch it too deep. We were able to get it out of his hands make their guards make a play."

The ball ended up with the Harrisons, and the brothers missed four straight shots and were just 2-of-11 in the second half after going 8-of-10 in the first half.

The Badgers, meanwhile, got a bit of luck—the shot clock violation that wasn't—and executed flawlessly to get the shots they wanted.

"I feel like we just gave everything we worked for away," Harrison said. "We just let go of the rope."

The stranglehold that Kentucky's defense seemed to have on almost every offense it faced this year was also let loose. The Badgers used a brilliant spread attack that brought Kentucky's shot-blockers away from the basket.

Apr 4, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Wisconsin Badgers forward Sam Dekker (15) shoots a three-pointer during the second half of the 2015 NCAA Men's Division I Championship semi-final game against the Kentucky Wildcats at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

They shredded the 'Cats with ball screens that led to open perimeter looks, and they made 7-of-17 threes against the best three-point defense in college basketball.

What Kentucky has been able to do all season is switch most ball screens, because of 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein's ability to guard all five positions.

But they had not faced an offense like this with every guy capable of burying shots and attacking off the dribble.

A year ago, not all five Badgers showed in the semifinal loss to Kentucky. Frank Kaminsky had little impact with only eight points in that game. This time around he had 20 and 11 rebounds. 

Kaminsky and Sam Dekker (16 points) looked like the best two players on the floor, going at all of UK's height without any fear. The Badgers nearly made the UK trees in the paint obsolete, somehow grabbing 12 offensive rebounds and limiting UK to six. 

Dekker set the tone that the Badgers were going to go right at the giants, burning Cauley-Stein for two buckets early and making the All-American an afterthought.

"I think it's more eating at me that I didn't really contribute on anything," Cauley-Stein said. "I scored the first bucket—one of the first couple buckets on a lob—and then played 33 minutes and had two points and five rebounds. 

"I mean that's probably going to eat at me for the rest of my life. Just to know I had so much more that I could have gave and change the outcome of the game and I just didn't do it, and that's really going to kill me on the inside."

Apr 4, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Kentucky Wildcats forward Karl-Anthony Towns (12) and Dakari Johnson (44) sit on the bench following their loss to the Wisconsin Badgers 71-64 in the 2015 NCAA Men's Division I Championship semi-final game at Lucas Oil
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Regret.

The Wildcats will feel many emotions over the next couple days, but regret was all they could verbalize in the immediate aftermath. 

"Nobody said much," freshman point guard Tyler Ulis said of the first minutes in the locker room. "We understood we had a great season, but everybody understands we did it for nothing."

That's not true, and someday these 'Cats will realize this. Someday they'll be able to get back together and appreciate that they flirted with history and sometimes the best team does not win. 

But this group, as we know it, will never play together again. Cauley-Stein admitted he's probably off to the NBA. Several others will follow. 

As Kentucky walked off the court for the final time together, UK students lined the entryway to the tunnel and applauded this team one last time. 

A season worth celebrating. With an imperfect finish.

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.  

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