Traevon Jackson has hit a number of big shots this season for the Badgers. The guy was money. The guy was clutch. But he didn’t have his magic touch on this night. Jackson missed a key free throw and potential game-winning shot that proved fatal in the dying moments of Wisconsin’s 74-73 loss to Kentucky in a national semifinal game.
It was a tough way for the season to end for Jackson and No. 2 Wisconsin. After 39 gut-wrenching, spine-tingling, spell-binding, back-and-forth minutes, it came down to big shots. Kentucky hit its shot. Wisconsin missed its. And, just like that, the Badgers’ magical ride ended a game short of the national championship game.
The Big Ten will have to wait another year to win a national title. It’s 14 years and counting.
Wisconsin was so close, moments from punching its ticket to the title game to play No. 7 UConn—which beat No. 1 Florida–on Monday night. The Badgers used torrid shooting to almost pull off the win, hitting 40 percent from 3-point range (8-of-20) and 19-of-20 from the charity stripe. That offset Kentucky’s 50 percent shooting and 32-27 edge on the glass. Still, in the end, when a play had to be made, the Wildcats and their uber-talented freshmen delivered to continue a theme throughout this tourney for a UK program that has won 11 straight NCAA games.
The Badgers looked to have things in command in the waning moments. With the game tied at 71 and the shot clock about to expire, Jackson threw up an ill-advised, off balanced 3-pointer with a defender closing in. The hoop missed, but Jackson drew a foul and went to the line for three shots.
Jackson missed the first shot—Wisconsin’s lone miss on the night—but hit the last two. That miss would prove to be prophetic, as Wisconsin led 73-71 with 16 seconds left.
Give Kentucky an opening, and it’ll seize it. Sure enough, the Wildcats struck … big time. And it was a kill hit.
Like he had earlier in the NCAA tourney vs. Louisville and Michigan, Aaron Harrison launched a bomb—some would say an ill-advised shot. But, the freshman’s impossibly long 3-pointer with 5.7 seconds left ripped the net and gave Kentucky a 74-73 lead.
Wisconsin had one last shot, but Jackson’s desperation runner lipped out, giving the Wildcats the win.
Wisconsin was in its first Final Four since 2000. And the Badgers got here largely on the narrow, sloping shoulders of 7-0 junior Frank Kaminsky.
The big fella had a coming out party during the regular season, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors. And he took his game to another level in the NCAA tournament. His 28-point performance vs. No. 1 Arizona in the Elite Eight was one of the signature efforts of the Big Dance. Before that, Kaminsky tallied 19 points vs. No. 7 Oregon and 19 vs. No. 6 Baylor.
But on this night, Kaminsky never got on track, finishing with just eight points and five rebounds. Credit the Kentucky defense.
Other Badgers stepped up, as freshman Bronson Koenig had 11 points and Duje Dukan had eight. Sam Dekker and Ben Brust carried the water for most of the night, as each finished with 15 points. But, it wasn’t enough.
The Badgers led 40-36 at halftime even though Kaminsky had just two points. Dekker had 12 points, Koenig 11 and Burst 10, as Wisconsin made all 14 of its free throws in the opening 20 minutes and led by as many as nine points.
But Kentucky wiped away that lead early in the second half with a 15-0 run that turned a 40-36 deficit into a 51-43 edge with 15:33 left in the game. Wisconsin answered with a 9-2 run to take the lead in what became a lead-changing nail-biter to the end that left a record-crowd breathless.
This was a Wisconsin team unlike any Bo Ryan has had in his 13 seasons in Madison. The stout defense and limited number of turnovers remained constants all season. But the offensive skill was at a level not seen before under Ryan. And that, more than anything, was the reason why the Badgers made this deep run in the NCAA tourney.
The best may be yet to come for Wisconsin, which loses only one key senior off this team: Ben Brust. The Badgers will have plenty of talent back next season and may be the Big Ten favorite and a preseason top five team. There was no shame in losing to this Kentucky club.
This is a Wildcats team that is playing as well as any team in Arlington, Texas, in the Final Four. John Calipari’s team arrived as a No. 8 seed, the lowest left in the tourney. But most felt Kentucky wasn’t a No. 8 seed. This team is blessed with an embarrassment of riches. Remember: Kentucky began the season No. 1 in the polls. The Big Dance hasn’t seen a group of freshmen this talented since Michigan’s Fab Five made a run to the title game in 1992.
Julius Randle, James Young, Dakari Johnson and Aaron and Andrew Harrison have developed a cohesion in March they lacked during a regular season that was marked by inconsistency.
Kentucky has gotten a boost in the tourney from its 3-point shooting. But the Wildcats are still at their best when they take the ball to the paint. And, Kentucky dominated in the lane tonight.
So big, so strong, so talented. This Kentucky team is something to behold.
Young led the way with 17 points for the Cats. Randle had 16, fighting through an early ankle injury. And, just think: UK played without its best big man in Willie Cauley-Stein, who was out with injury. Kentucky didn’t need him on this night of paint domination.
But, ironically, it was a 3-point shot by a guy who finished with just eight points that proved to be the biggest and most key of the night for the Wildcats. And, ironically, it was the only 3-pointer that Aaron Harrison hit all night for a UK team that was 2-of-5 from long range.
The loss hurts Wisconsin now. But, this is a team and a program that continues to break barriers and is pointed upward.
|About Tom Dienhart||BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.|
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