Arizona’s dream again crushed short of Final Four

LOS ANGELES — By the time Rondae Hollis Jefferson stepped off the Staples Center court on Saturday, he had to let the waterworks go. There was no more holding it in. He was already emotionally spent and physically exhausted.

And, of course, Arizona was defeated.

"Coming off the court and the game is over and you have to go home and the season is ending is definitely an emotional moment," Hollis-Jefferson said after the Wildcats came up short, 85-78, to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight for the second consecutive season. "For me personally, I wanted to apologize for not being able to get those coaches to the Final Four, being so close yet again."

He apologized to anyone he could.

It’s now 14 years and counting since Arizona reached the Final Four. This time the Wildcats were denied by one of the best offensive performances it has seen in an NCAA Tournament since Utah blitzed Arizona 76-51 in 1998. Arizona’s vaunted defense was no match for Wisconsin’s inside-outside attack.

As Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said, "We were making shots."

It might as well have been Pop-A-Shot. And from just about everywhere in the second half. After hitting 2 of 3 from beyond the 3-point line in the opening half, the Badgers made eight of their first nine 3s in the second half, eventually connecting on 10 of 12 after halftime.

"Their second half offense was spectacular, extraordinary and they deserve credit for that," Arizona coach Sean Miller said.

Every shot Wisconsin put up seemed like it was going in. And they almost did, as the Badgers hit 15 of 19 shots in the second half. None was bigger than Sam Dekker’s from-the-heavens 3 with 17 seconds left and Arizona still clinging to life at 81-76.

Wisconsin 85, Arizona 78

The Final Four was still within reach … maybe.

"They just made tough shots and it hurts," said Arizona senior T.J. McConnell, who finished with 14 points. "We just wanted to get there so it hurts just as bad as last year."

Last year, Wisconsin put an end to Arizona’s dreams in the Los Angeles-area, beating Arizona 64-63 in overtime. Southern California hasn’t been kind to the Wildcats in that it’s now five times Arizona has lost in the Elite Eight in the area.

On Saturday, Arizona had its chances. It found itself in a deficit at 10-2 to start the game but rallied to come back and take the lead at 33-30. But then, Frank Kaminsky, who finished with 27 points, hit a 3 and Wisconsin, behind Dekker, followed. Before Arizona could get its footing, Wisconsin had outscored the Wildcats 11-1.

Arizona rallied again the next three minutes to make it 47-46, but it could never retake the lead.

"We had a chance and Sam Dekker pretty much just crushed our dreams with that shot," McConnell said. "Credit to him. But that’s what I love about this team the most — it’s that they never stop fighting."

Foul trouble didn’t help, especially for freshman Stanley Johnson, who was whistled for his fourth foul with 4:13 left on what he thought was a clean block on Kaminsky.

"It was the worst call I’ve ever seen," Johnson said. "This is the Elite Eight, (for the) Final Four. I didn’t hit him. I hit the ball. … Then again you don’t control those calls."

What hurt worse, even perhaps more so than his eye that was poked in the second half, was his inability to help his team in the waning minutes after he was called for his fifth foul with three minutes to go.

"It was difficult to sit there and watch your team, your brothers who you trained with the last year," said Johnson, who had six points, two rebounds and three turnovers. "It’s tough to sit there and watch the loss happen. I didn’t come here to lose in the Elite Eight. I didn’t come here to lose in the Final Four. I came here to win the Final Four."

Blame Dekker and Kaminsky. McConnell said he thought Arizona did a good job on Dekker in the first half — he was 2 of 5 from the floor — but then "he showed his true self in the second half. He played like an NBA player." He finished with 27 points. Kaminsky had 29.

When Dekker nailed a 3 with just under two minutes left, Miller pointed to him as if to say, "Good shot." When he hit Arizona’s dream crusher with 17 seconds left, all Miller could do was shake his head a bit and smile.

"Their offensive execution and their ability to make shots in the second half," Miller said, "were almost like a video game. I’d like to blame our players or we weren’t playing hard. (But) let me tell you, Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky, they are really good."

Arizona had no answer for either. Kaminsky scored 57 points in Wisconsin’s two Elite Eight victories over Arizona. Kaleb Tarczewski couldn’t stop him. Neither could Arizona’s best stopper, Hollis-Jefferson. Brandon Ashley, who had the assignment early, picked up two quick fouls trying to defend him.

"He’s a hell of a player," Ashley said. "There’s not much more to be said.

"I can’t afford to get in foul trouble in the first two minutes of the game. I take full responsibility for that."

Miller said he "emptied the bucket" when it came to trying to stop Wisconsin

"When Sam Dekker does what he did, and I think some of his shots were defended, when he does that with Kaminsky, maybe Kentucky is that school that can beat them," Miller said.

"When you lose this game, it’s hard. You lose four times in seven years, that’s probably a record, right? I come back to the point that it’s a process. It’s a long journey."

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