Sean Merriman, web editor, April 7, 2015

INDIANAPOLIS — It started well for Wisconsin on college basketball's biggest stage as the shots fell, the defense smothered, and the Badgers, eying the Big Ten's first national championship in 15 years, led by nine points.

[ MORE: Twitter: Badgers, past and present, react to national final loss ]

But then came Duke, fueled by an unsuspected freshman hero not named Okafor or Winslow and guided by a coach with a history of winning big games.

The freshman was Grayson Allen, who scored 10 of his 16 points in the second half after averaging just four a game this season. Allen wasn't the only freshman who thrived in crunch time, as freshmen scored all 37 of Duke's points in the second half.

Those Badger shots that were falling in the first 30 minutes began to rim out and the fouls began to pile up.

Duke eventually took a 56-54 with 5:30 left, and it went ahead for good on Tyus Jones' clutch 3-pointer to make it 59-58 with just over four minutes remaining. Jones, who finished with a game-high 23 points, added another triple and a pair of free throws down the stretch to deny the Badgers their first national title since 1941.

It was one of the few games these Badgers wouldn't close down the stretch.

"What a fantastic job these guys did all year," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. "There are a lot of good things, when you look at the stats, that this group did and I'm extremely proud of them."

Monday's game was a heavyweight battle between two outstanding college basketball teams. There were 16 lead changes, including 13 in the first half.

"It's hard to have gotten this far and gotten this close, and then just like that, that's it, it's over," Wisconsin sophomore Bronson Koenig said. "It's a game of runs. We made our runs and they made theirs.

[ MORE: Dienhart: Duke denies Wisconsin first title since 1941 ]

"In the end, they just made a couple more runs than we did."

The Badgers set a school record with 36 wins this season and were minutes away from securing their second national crown. But they ran into a Duke squad that had all the makings of a classical title team: Senior point guard Quinn Cook leading a deep group of talent, all of it under Mike Krzyzewski, a coach who now owns five NCAA titles.

What a game. What a run. This year's Wisconsin team was as much of a joy to watch off the court as it was on the court.

These players made it no secret that they were having fun.

There's Josh Gasser, a gritty senior nicknamed Captain America for his outstanding leadership and ability to do the right thing at the the right time.

There's Nigel Hayes, the team jokester, who went from being a bench player last season to being a focal point on this year's squad.

There's Sam Dekker, who is as talented as any player in America but was often criticized for not being more assertive in the biggest games. So, in Wisconsin's six NCAA Tournament games, he averaged more than 19 points and 5.5 rebounds per game.

And then there's Kaminsky, the very picture of improvement and this year's national player of the year who wowed Big Ten fans every time he took the court. He was the rock of this Wisconsin team, and he will go down as of one the greatest players in Badger basketball history.

"These guys are my family, and I mean that literally," Kaminsky said after the game. "I've never been closer to a group of guys in my entire life, from the coaching staff on down to every single player on this team. It's just going to be hard to say goodbye."

But he only leaves after helping make relevant in the conversation about the top college basketball programs today. Two straight Final Four appearances can do that.

"When we came here as freshmen, we believed we could do something like this," senior Traevon Jackson said. "We didn't accomplish our ultimate goal, but we definitely changed the culture of Wisconsin."

This group went 115-34 over the past four years, culminated by this Big Ten regular season championship, a Big Ten Tournament championship, and national championship game appearance after ending Kentucky's historic pursuit of perfection.

Following the game, Gasser was asked how this Badgers team would be remembered.

"I hope we're remembered as being good guys who worked their tails off and did stuff the right way," he said. "Guys who wanted to win and wanted to have fun doing it.

"We accomplished a lot. It's been a great ride."

Before you think back to this final game, remember all the incredible memories this team was able to share with everyone. Remember what this group of seniors, Gasser, Kaminsky and Jackson, were able to accomplish during their time in a Badger uniform.

Most importantly, remember this team not for how they finished, but instead, for what they started.


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