Badgers' Confidence in Final Four Win Makes Kentucky's Dream Year a Nightmare

Jason King@@JasonKingBRSenior Writer, B/R MagApril 5, 2015

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS — The final horn was still blaring at Lucas Oil Stadium when Andrew and Aaron Harrison began their retreat to the Kentucky locker room.

Shoulders slumped and towels draped over their heads, the twin brothers were trailed by 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein, who appeared to be fighting back tears after Saturday's 71-64 loss to Wisconsin at the Final Four.

"Guys, get back out there!" Wildcats assistant John Robic yelled as he sprinted toward the trio near the tunnel. "Get back out on the court and shake their hands!"

The Kentucky starters never broke stride. While their teammates remained on the hardwood to congratulate the squad that had just ended their season—and their run at history—the Harrisons and Cauley-Stein slipped away without uttering a single word to the Badgers.

Poor sportsmanship? Perhaps.

Or maybe they were just too stunned to speak.

Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns (left) and Dakari Johnson sit in shocked disbelief.
Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns (left) and Dakari Johnson sit in shocked disbelief.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

"I just wanted to get off the court," Aaron Harrison said 20 minutes later. "I'm still trying to wrap my mind around what happened. This doesn't seem real."

Certainly not to the Wildcats, who at 38-0 entering the game were two wins away from completing college basketball's first perfect season since 1976. Walk-ons wept openly in their locker stalls. Encircled by cameras and microphones, stars such as Trey Lyles and Dakari Johnson barely spoke above a whisper. Andrew Harrison was accused of mumbling a profanity on the postgame interview podium.

But in the Wisconsin locker room, there was hardly a sense of shock.

For the past 12 months, the Badgers had stewed about their one-point loss to Kentucky in last season's NCAA semifinal, a thriller that Aaron Harrison's three-pointer decided in the waning seconds.

"Crushed our dreams," backup point guard Zak Showalter said.

Wisconsin's players vowed after the defeat to return to the Final Four in 2015. When the selection committee released the tournament bracket last month and the Badgers realized they could face off against the Wildcats, it almost seemed poetic. Wisconsin didn't care about Kentucky's perfect record or its nine McDonald's All-Americans and four projected first-round NBA draft picks.

Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky led all scorers with 20 points.
Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky led all scorers with 20 points.Pool/Getty Images

It welcomed another shot.

"We felt like we let an opportunity slip away from us last season," guard Josh Gasser said. "We were determined not to let it happen again. We weren't concerned with their record. We knew we could win.

"There's a big difference between being confident and knowing you can do something, and we knew we could beat Kentucky. We believed in ourselves."

After Saturday, the rest of America probably does, too.

In what will surely be remembered as one of the greatest Final Four games in history, the Badgers used 20 points from The Associated Press' National Player of the Year, Frank Kaminsky, and some late-game heroics by emerging star Sam Dekker to avenge last season's setback against Kentucky and advance to Monday's championship tilt against Duke.

A victory over the Blue Devils—who beat Wisconsin in Madison earlier this season—would give Bo Ryan's squad its second NCAA title in school history. Exciting as it promises to be, the game will be hard-pressed to be as entertaining as the one college basketball fans witnessed Saturday.

Sam Dekker's clutch three-pointer may have been the biggest shot of the night—and the tournament.
Sam Dekker's clutch three-pointer may have been the biggest shot of the night—and the tournament.Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

After seven lead changes and 11 ties, Kentucky and Wisconsin—both No. 1 seeds—found themselves knotted at 60 with less than two minutes remaining. That's when Dekker, the in-state hero from Sheboygan, hit what may have been the shot of the tournament, a step-back three-pointer over Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns that gave the Badgers a 63-60 cushion and momentum they would never relinquish.

"I was waiting for a good look like that all night," said Dekker, who finished with 16 points and is averaging 20.6 points during the tournament. "I knew I had to put it up. I knew it was good off the hand."

Also key for Wisconsin was a 34-22 rebounding advantage against the nation's top frontcourt—"That doesn't happen," Kentucky coach John Calipari said—and some pivotal defensive stops down the stretch. Wisconsin forced the Badgers into three late shot-clock violations.

"Out of anybody in the country," point guard Bronson Koenig said, "I thought we matched up the best with them."

Disappointed as he was with the loss, Calipari said he couldn't be upset with his team.

"Think about this," Calipari said. "We had six turnovers for the game. We shot 90 percent from the free-throw line, 60 percent from three and 48 percent for the game—and we lost."

"I told my wife before the game, 'We could lose. They're good enough to beat us.'"

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Before they left Lucas Oil Stadium, Kentucky officials had received word that fans back in Lexington were responding to the loss by burning couches and other items in the streets. Calipari hopes the negativity that could surround the setback doesn't influence the way his players remember the season.

"My concern is these young people right here, making sure they keep this in the right perspective," Calipari said. "They're hurting right now. But they just had a historic year."

The Badgers have, too.

And no moment to date has been as memorable as what unfolded Saturday.

Wisconsin players and coaches darted onto the court as the final horn sounded, hugging anyone in sight as House of Pain's "Jump Around" boomed over the sound system.

Kaminsky had received 276 text messages by the time he returned to the locker room. He and Dekker and Nigel Hayes asked Media Relations Assistant Director Patrick Herb to hold their cell phones while they conducted postgame interviews.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - APRIL 04: Wisconsin Badgers fans celebrate after defeating the Kentucky Wildcats during the NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at Lucas Oil Stadium on April 4, 2015 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Wisconsin defeated Kentucky 71-64. (Photo by Str
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

"I put them in my pocket," Herb said, "and my whole body started vibrating."

Uplifting as Saturday's win may have been, the Badgers said they're smart enough not to overplay the accomplishment. With so much hype centered on Kentucky and the opportunity to end the Wildcats' run at perfection, fans and media were almost treating Saturday's showdown as if it were the NCAA title game.

Gasser, a fifth-year senior, said he isn't worried about the Badgers being "emotionally spent" after beating Kentucky.

"It's our jobs as leaders—myself and Frank and Coach Ryan—to keep us looking at the big picture," Gasser said. "This was a great win, but it wasn't our goal to make it to the national championship game. Our goal is to win the whole thing."

Wisconsin's final obstacle is a big one.

In what was the most impressive win by any team during the regular season, Duke beat Wisconsin 80-70 in Madison on Dec. 3. The Blue Devils shot 65.2 percent in the victory. Hobbled by an ankle injury, Dekker scored just five points for the Badgers.

"They've improved a lot since then, but we've improved a lot too," Koenig said. "It's going to take our best game to beat them. It's exciting to be in this position.

"But we haven't won anything yet."

Jason King covers college sports for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.


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