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 — on his 22nd birthday — 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 shirt.
“It’s the best birthday present I’ve ever had,” said Kaminsky, the national player of the year, who led all players with 20 points and 11 rebounds.
Do you believe in the Badgers now? All season, they heard that it was Kentucky at the top and then everyone else battling for second-best. And it was; for months the Wildcats, who ended a spectacular season with an unforgettable record of 38-1, played a game all their own, filled with seven-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 this season, 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.
“Wisconsin was outstanding,” said Wildcats coach John Calipari. “I thought we had them, but they didn’t go away. They played like we play and they kept coming.”
Most of all, the Badgers believed they would beat Kentucky. And you’d better believe they think — no, know — they’re going to cut down the nets here 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 – walked out of Lucas Oil Stadium not feeling exhausted.
But Wisconsin-Kentucky wasn’t a championship game. Oh, no. The Badgers still have to beat Duke, a team that won impressively 80-70 in Madison in December, shooting 65 percent. The Blue Devils merely handed Michigan State its worst-ever NCAA tourney defeat in Saturday’s opening semifinal. The Badgers survived Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, the Harrison twins and the rest of Calipari’s stars. Now they must tangle again with Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones and the great Mike Krzyzewski.
“Duke beat us,” said Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan. “Duke put it to us earlier in the year.”
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 8 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 final college season before he becomes an NBA lottery pick. Just as he, not 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.
“We didn’t freak out,” Dekker said.
No, indeed. In the end, it was the favored Wildcats who didn’t have enough gusto to take charge of things. The Badgers did, and now everyone’s a believer.