INDIANAPOLIS — Most of them piled together at halfcourt and jumped for joy. Sam Dekker and Josh Gasser stood to the side and shared a hug. Frank Kaminsky faced the red-clad fans and held a T-shirt up high, emblazoned with the most perfect words:
“Make ’em believe.”
They waited for this for a year, the Wisconsin Badgers did. Since the sting of last year’s Final Four heartbreak against Kentucky, they waited for a chance to return to this point and get it right. Against anyone, the simple goal being a national championship. But to knock off unbeaten Kentucky 71-64 Saturday night en route to the title game? It all seems as perfect as the words on that T-shirt.
Do you believe in the Badgers now? All season, they heard that it was Kentucky at the top, then everyone else battling for second-best. And it was; for months the Wildcats, who finish a spectacular season with an unforgettable record of 38-1, played a game all their own, filled with 7-footers and never-ending depth and nothing less than five-star quality.
But in this national semifinal, UK ran into all the red-clad characteristics that have enabled Wisconsin to win a school-record 36 games, not a bad little total at all. The Badgers execute. They prize the basketball. They play together. They’re bigger and stronger and tougher and better than the sum of their parts.
Most of all, they believed they would beat Kentucky. And you’d better believe they think — no, know — they’re going to cut down the nets on Monday night.
About that . . . yeah, that’s actually going to be kind of difficult, isn’t it? Wisconsin-Kentucky felt every bit like a championship game, especially as the teams ran off the court tied at halftime and then, in the second half, as the Wildcats took charge with a 16-4 run only to see the Badgers counter with one gut-check play after another. No one — not player, not coach, not spectator — didn’t walk out of Lucas Oil Stadium feeling exhausted.
But Wisconsin-Kentucky wasn’t a championship game. Oh, no, indeed. The Badgers still have to beat Duke, a team that won impressively in Madison early this season. The Blue Devils merely handed Michigan State its worst NCAA tourney defeat in the opening semifinal. The Badgers survived Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, the Harrison twins and the rest of John Calipari’s stars. Now they must tangle again with Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones and the great Mike Krzyzewski.
There is zero question Wisconsin has gotten much better since that Duke game, and certainly since last April’s Kentucky contest. The Badgers’ one-two punch against Arizona in the Elite Eight and Kentucky in the Final Four easily is the best two-game stretch any team has played all season.
The single biggest change for Wisconsin: the confidence of Dekker, a junior, which is growing — exploding, more like — down the stretch of what’s likely to be his last college season before he becomes an NBA lottery pick. Just as he, not national player of the year Frank Kaminsky, drove the nails in the coffin against Arizona, Dekker made the biggest late shots to shock the Wildcats.
Just when UK seemed to be prepared to seal the deal, Dekker drove hard for the basket that cut Wisconsin’s deficit to 60-58. Two possessions later, he drilled a step-back three-pointer for a 63-60 edge. Then, on the other end, the guy who was the Badgers’ weakest defensive player the last two years took a charge. It was a brilliant sequence from a player who has to be on again if his team is going to take down Duke.
Kaminsky was terrific, scoring 20 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and proving himself as the best big man on the floor. Dekker finished with 16.
Kentucky was led throughout the first half by guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison, but they were much quieter down the stretch. Towns — a potential No. 1 overall draft pick — had his moments, but in the end, he didn’t have enough gusto to take charge of things.
It was the Badgers who did that, and now everyone’s a believer.