In a game for the ages, Wisconsin gets revenge and TKO’s Kentucky’s once perfect season

“It sucks.  Sure, I am disappointed…We had them right where we wanted them, but Wisconsin just kept coming (back).”

Kentucky Head Coach John Calipari speaking to Tracy Wolfson moments after UK’s seismic defeat to Wisconsin in the 2015 NCAA Final Four

I wonder what people like Larry Johnson, Anderson Hunt, Stacey Augmon, and the family of the late towel biting coach, Jerry “The Shark” Tarkanian are thinking on this late Saturday night.

Back in the pre-Internet era, our nation survived a six week long conflict called Operation Desert Storm (later to be known as the Persian Gulf War).  The talk that year on ESPN in college hoops was about how great UNLV was, and the Runnin’ Rebels responded by running off to a 45 game winning streak which encompassed parts of two seasons.

But by the time Duke arrived at that year’s Final Four, they had that look–the “Eye of the Tiger” look.  Duke played a nearly perfect game that night and upset UNLV by only two points, 79-77.

And after a merely disgusting time for all Hoosier citizens and the nation at large for nearly four days this week, the second semifinal in 2015 played to a very similar backdrop.  As Indiana politicians silently recover from their war of words, Wisconsin came into this Final Four with the mindset of trying to beat the team that ended their season exactly one year ago in Arlington, Texas.

The Badgers answered the opening bell by scoring 11 points off key offensive rebounds in the first half.

The three key guys that I highlighted in my preview blog were right on target:

Sam Dekker hit a three, followed by a similar three from the Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky.  Dekker then went inside for a conventional three-point play, but Kentucky seemed to have an answer each time.  Nigel Hayes made some nifty shots as well, as the crowd sensed that Wisconsin had their “Eye of the Tiger” look down pat.

A few minutes later, Karl Anthony Towns dunked off a perfect feed and Willie Cauley-Stein scored on a key alley-oop pass to draw the Wildcats to a tie at 36 going into halftime.  A 22-13 run made this game to be an instant classic.

Just before the half was one of two plays that nearly cost the Badgers a chance at making their own history:

Sam Dekker shot a wide open jumper just as the half was coming to an end.  However, his right foot barely grazed the line and a potential game-leading three was reviewed and switched to a game-tying two point basket.

The second half saw the big men try to assert themselves, as both teams shot close to a blistering 50 percent for the entire game.

Frank Kaminsky (playing on his 22nd birthday, scored three baskets in the early moments of the second half) and Karl Anthony Towns scored with regularity.  However, Wisconsin separated themselves from Kentucky because of their hot outside shooting.  Wisconsin actually led by eight with 14:45 left, but then got ice cold when Kentucky went on a stretch where the Badgers did not score a point for ten minutes.

Sam Dekker again stopped the bleeding.  Karl Anthony Towns muscled his way inside for a basket and one of the few team fouls whistled against the Badgers in the second half.  But unlike the first semifinal, it was Kentucky doing most of the fouling.

One such play turned the tide (indirectly).

Trey Lyles made a bonehead play by simply decking Sam Dekker in the face.  Normally, that would be a Flagrant 1 foul.  But surprisingly, the refs did not catch it after looking at several TBS replays.

Wayne Larrivee on the Bleacher Stream was puzzled, and Bo Ryan nearly did his best Tom Izzo impersonation as his eyes grew wider and bigger.

On the next possession, Wisconsin worked the shot clock–but the rebound basket by Nigel Hayes did not go in until after the buzzer.  This play though, did count and the game was tied again at 60.

But the next three possessions were the opposite of what Kentucky did all year long:

Each time they milked the shot clock and did not draw iron each time.

Three separate 35 second shot clock violations tilted the balance of the game back to the Badgers.

But the real dagger again came from Sam Dekker, a straight on three-pointer with 1:44 remaining.  That was another key to why Wisconsin upset Kentucky when the Badgers converted on 15 of 31 jump shots (48.4 percent).

Wisconsin’s remaining points came from the free throw line–Bronson Koenig sealing the final two shots, although Kentucky finished a perfect 10 for 10.  However, the rebounding was firmly in Wisconsin’s favor–34 to 22.

Just like a boxer who has the ability to punch and counter-punch in the early rounds, by the time the bell rang for the 15th and final round–the challenger weighed in for the kill, and it was all over.

As Wisconsin fans tweeted Kentucky’s final record of 38-1, I will forever think of how Kentucky really did not know what the magnitude of this game really meant.

For good measure, a final desperation three from 35 feet away by Andrew Harrison failed to draw iron with 6 seconds left and the celebration began both in Indianapolis and Madison.

The 71-64 final has sent major shockwaves across the college basketball landscape.  Not since 1991 has a team enter the Final Four with an unblemished record.

And so, just like Larry Bird suffered with the rest of the 1979 Indiana State Sycamores, the 1991 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels and the 2014 Wichita State Shockers–we can make room for the 2015 Kentucky Wildcats…

UK’s undefeated record is no more.

“I’m proud of these kids. They took us on an absolute ride as a coach, our staff, our university, our state.”

Kentucky Coach and 2015 National Coach of the Year John Calipari during his postgame press conference to the national media inside Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis

Frank Kaminsky scored 20 to lead the Big Ten champions, while Sam Dekker had 16 crucial points of his own.  The defense and rebounding was simply stellar on this night, and that is what they will need again come Monday.

Hopefully, no major emotional letdown will affect Wisconsin come Monday night

That was the first thing 1991 and 1992 champion player at Duke in Grant Hill remarked to Jim Nantz and Bill Raftery seconds before they went off the air on TBS.

In 1991, Duke used their upset victory over UNLV to get past Mark Randall and a slightly undermanned Kansas squad 72-65 to win the Blue Devils’ first national title at the old Hoosier/RCA Dome.

Nearly a quarter century later, Duke tries to give Coach K the ‘Drive for Five’.

Wisconsin is hoping to win the first title in the program’s storied history since eight months before Pearl Harbor in 1941, the longest current drought in NCAA history.

It will be the overall Number 4 seed vs. the overall Number 3 seed in another rematch.  Duke won by 10 on December 3 in Madison during the annual post-Thanksgiving Big Ten-ACC Challenge.

In terms of the overall seed history going back to 1979, this will be the seventh time that a pair of 1 seeds will square off for the championship.

The others:

  • 1982, North Carolina over Georgetown
  • 1993, North Carolina over Michigan
  • 1999, Connecticut over Duke
  • 2005, North Carolina over Illinois
  • 2007, Florida over Ohio State
  • 2008, Kansas over Memphis (the first year the Final Four had all four #1 seeds playing)

I hope everyone has a happy and safe Easter holiday and hopefully, we will all take some much needed deep breaths in our sleep to recover from this instant classic.

Regardless how you saw or heard this game, what an historic night this turned out to be.

Congratulations to Kentucky on a pretty good season, but clearly–it was Wisconsin’s night to remember…for this season and for all time.

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