Josh Gasser fueled by UK buzzer-beater that bounced Badgers

INDIANAPOLIS — The picture of competitiveness is a 3-year-old boy barreling into his father in the family living room, desperately grunting and groaning to push past an imaginary first-down marker to earn another fake series of downs. It is a 5-year-old boy angrily protesting his mother’s umpiring skills for signaling a walk on his tennis ball pitches in the same living room.

The picture of competitiveness is a middle school pitcher who refuses to waste a ball in the dirt on a 0-2 count because it goes against everything he represents in an effort to win the game. It is a college basketball guard who sacrifices his body by diving out of bounds to save a possession in practice weeks before the real season even begins.

At every stage, Wisconsin guard Josh Gasser has demonstrated toughness, relentlessness and an overwhelming desire to succeed. Win within the framework of the rules. But find a way to win no matter what level of effort is required.

"He’s got this weird thing about losing," says his mother, Joan Gasser. "But lots of people do. He just couldn’t lose at anything. If the football was near him, he’d kill himself to get it. No matter what drill you’d run in practice, he always had to win. You can see the motor running in his head. He’s very quiet. But you know what he’s thinking: win, win, win."

Gasser’s distinctly competitive side has made him one of the most beloved Wisconsin players in recent memory, a fifth-year senior who thrives on frustrating opponents with all-out hustle while willingly accepting the challenge of guarding the other team’s best perimeter player. His success is a big reason Wisconsin (35-3) has earned a second consecutive Final Four matchup against Kentucky (38-0). This time, the teams will meet at 7:49 p.m. CT Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

And yet, for all his triumphs — most career starts, most minutes, most games played — there is a moment in time he’ll always want back that he cannot have. It took place a year ago this week in the same game against the same team and helped seal Kentucky’s stunning 74-73 comeback victory against Wisconsin at the Final Four in Arlington, Texas.

"He never came out and said it, but I sensed he felt that they should have won that game and by no means did they lose to a team that was better than them," says Pat Gasser, his father. "Kentucky’s a great, great team and everything, but that just deflated him."

Dozens of other plays led to the final result. And there was little more Gasser could have done to defend a shot that will be replayed on "One Shining Moment" montages for years to come. Still, he was the one standing there, trying to prevent the unthinkable from happening in the waning seconds of the biggest game of his life.

Instead, the man who hates to lose more than anyone was forced to confront the most devastating loss of his career.

"I try not to think about it much," Gasser says. "It’s one of those games and moments that you just don’t want to think about. But unfortunately it sometimes creeps in your head a little bit."

*****

The play began with 16.4 seconds remaining, after Badgers point guard Traevon Jackson made the second of his three free-throw attempts to give Wisconsin a 73-71 lead. Wildcats guard Andrew Harrison allowed the in-bound pass to dribble five times before he picked the ball up between his own 3-point line and half court.

He jogged up the right side of the floor and then pushed hard toward the basket, dribbling into the baseline before nearly stepping out of bounds between a double team from Jackson and Frank Kaminsky. Harrison leapt in the air and shoveled a bounce pass into the post to teammate Dakari Johnson.

11 seconds. . .

Johnson bobbled the ball once but found Harrison again in the left corner.

10 seconds. . .

Andrew Harrison took one dribble and dished to his twin brother, Aaron Harrison on the left wing.

9 seconds. . .

Aaron Harrison briefly held the ball to size up his defender. That’s where Gasser stood, both feet outside the 3-point line, with his hands out to his side.

8 seconds. . .

Aaron Harrison pulled the ball up from his waist and fired a 24-footer that was so deep, his left shoe was nearly out of bounds. Gasser reacted instinctively and jumped to challenge the shot with a right hand near the ball. But Harrison’s shot attempt cleared Gasser and sailed toward the basket

7 seconds. . .

The ball arced high in the air and nestled into the hoop after hitting the inside of the back rim and rattling through. Kentucky 74, Wisconsin 73.

5.7 seconds.

Wisconsin was forced to call a timeout to draw up one final play for Jackson, who would miss a contested jumper from the left wing as time expired, sending Kentucky players running into each others’ arms and Wisconsin players into total shock.

What could anyone say? Sam Dekker simply put his arm around Gasser after the buzzer sounded because no words could express the pain. Aaron Harrison, for a second straight game, had buried an opponent with a long shot in the closing seconds, and now Wisconsin’s dream season was over.

Joan Gasser says she discussed the shot with her son only once, the day after, for less than a minute. Josh never has been one to disclose much of the way he’s feeling — "he should be an FBI agent or something," Joan says — so Joan spoke her peace.

"I just told him (Harrison) made a great shot, a great play," Joan Gasser says. "But personally I thought it was a really foolish shot. I’d give him that shot any day of the week again, but he happened to make it. And good for him.

"Other people can disagree, but I’d give him that shot in that situation 99 times out of 99 because they had made one 3 the whole game. They were pounding it inside the whole time and scoring quite easily. I just didn’t think in that situation that was really a very smart shot to take. And the kid did, and he made it. So good for him. That’s all you can do is say good for you. Way to go. I think Josh said in response, ‘Yeah.’ That was it. We’ve never discussed it again. I know it’s eaten him up inside."

Josh Gasser says he has never viewed the film on that game and does not intend to watch this week, either. The fact Wisconsin has returned to the Final Four has helped to soften the blow of that loss. But last offseason, he says, the game was constantly on his mind, particularly when he’d wake up for 6:30 a.m. weight lifting sessions with the knowledge his team was "one possession away from playing for a national championship."

The lesson, Gasser says, is to value every single possession because one shot can make all the difference in a season.

*****

One shot can make all the difference in a season. But a single shot does not define a career. And that’s the overriding message Badgers assistant coach Greg Gard has tried to impart when it comes to Gasser.

"You learn from it and hopefully improve yourself and then move on," Gard says. "That’s the main thing you do. You can’t let it beat you again. Because he’s had so many good moments. He’s been such a backbone to the program in terms of toughness and work ethic and those types of things. His impact on this program and what he’ll be remembered for is way bigger than that."

Think of all the shots Gasser has forced opponents to miss, Gard notes, and the list is exceptionally long. He held Vanderbilt’s leading scorer, John Jenkins, to 3 of 13 shooting in an NCAA tournament game despite Gasser having the flu. Last season, he defended Virginia’s Joe Harris and Michigan State’s Gary Harris into submission, forcing them to shoot a combined 4 of 30 from the field. The fact Wisconsin won all three of those games is far from a coincidence.

Gasser also is one of only five Big Ten players in history to be named a three-time all-league defender, and you don’t earn those kinds of accolades by allowing one shot to overwhelm you.

"He has a sheer determination to get better, to work through adversity, to handle pressure," says John Bunyan, Gasser’s high school coach in Port Washington, Wis. "Where other kids get down or have doubt with things, Josh just never did that. It was always like find a solution to get better or work on his game or bring everybody around him to play better."

So many moments help to shape Gasser’s basketball career as a player who proves himself in the big moments, and Bunyan points to an especially memorable one from his freshman year of high school in 2007. Gasser scored the game-winning layup for Port Washington with two seconds left to beat Pewaukee — led by a post player named J.J. Watt — to win a sectional title and move on to the state tournament. It marked the beginning stages, Bunyan says, of Gasser building his reputation as the unflappable player he is today.

During his high school career, Gasser also learned to perfect the finer points of the game — taking a charge, making the extra pass, diving for loose balls — and the can’t-lose characteristics he continues to display now made him indispensable even then. His Wisconsin Swing AAU coach, Tyler Selk, says coaches often only found Gasser on the recruiting circuit after they came to look at one of his teammates. Soon, however, they could not take their eyes off Gasser.

"When the chips are on the table and it’s crunch time, he’s got his nose right in the middle of things," Selk says. "He’s coming up with the tough plays. If he’s open, he’ll score or he’ll distribute and get it to the guy who can. You’ll always have a chance to win with him on your team."

*****

And that leads us back to this very moment, with Gasser and the Badgers on the precipice of a rematch against Kentucky. At Wisconsin, Gasser’s teams have always had that chance to win, and they generally do.

In the four seasons Gasser has been on the floor, Wisconsin is 116-30 and reached at least the Sweet 16 every year. In the one season he missed because of a torn left anterior cruciate ligament in 2012-13, UW lost in the opening round of the NCAA tournament for the only time in coach Bo Ryan’s career.

Gasser is often described as the glue that holds this talented team together, the type of person teammates listen to on the floor because he commands respect with his play. Badgers center Frank Kaminsky, a national player of the year candidate, instead calls him "Captain America," which stuck this season because it was indicative of the ways in which Gasser always seemed to save the day on the basketball court.

Kaminsky even cites a play from Wisconsin’s Elite Eight victory against Arizona as a prime example, when Gasser picked up teammates Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker following an errant pass.

"It’s Josh’s identity," Kaminsky says. "In that Arizona game when Nigel threw that awful pass to Sam down the court, it seemed like Arizona was going to get it, and then Josh came out of nowhere and picked up the ball and helped us. I think we ended up scoring on that play.

"Just plays that Josh makes like that really helps us win basketball games, plays that a lot of people don’t necessarily see that really change the course of the game."

Oddsmakers favor Kentucky by six points to beat Wisconsin, and the Wildcats are two victories from polishing off the first Division I undefeated season in 39 years. This is a better Kentucky team than the one that knocked off Wisconsin a year ago. Gasser, however, will be among the first to point out this is a better Wisconsin team, too.

That loss has fueled Gasser and his teammates during one of the most successful single seasons in school history, one that already features a Big Ten regular season title, a conference tournament championship and a Final Four berth. Gasser is proud of those accomplishments, but he isn’t satisfied yet.

"That in itself will be something we can take away for the rest of our lives, and the relationships we have built with each other is great," Gasser says. "We obviously want more, and that’s the goal."

Now, the ultimate competitor has another chance. And given his track record, few in his inner circle would bet against him.

"Put it this way," Joan Gasser says. "Josh comes out on top more often than not."

Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter