LOS ANGELES — The goals Wisconsin’s basketball players established for themselves before this season were as lofty as those of any group ever to come through the program. There was confidence, a sense of determination and an exceptional level of talent that rivaled the best in the country. And so, the team decided, nothing short of a repeat Final Four appearance would be acceptable.
Now, the Badgers are one step closer to achieving that dream.
No. 1 seed Wisconsin outlasted No. 4 seed North Carolina, 79-72, on Thursday night at Staples Center in a Sweet 16 game that featured five ties and nine lead changes. UW advanced to face 2 seed Arizona, which defeated 6 seed Xavier, to set up a repeat matchup of last year’s Elite Eight at 5:09 p.m. CT Saturday.
For the third consecutive game, Wisconsin (34-3) did not play its best basketball during the NCAA tournament. But what has made the team so special is an ability to find the strength and reserves of character to win anyway. This time, the Badgers used a spectacular performance from junior Sam Dekker to carry them in the first half, before national player of the year candidate Frank Kaminsky kicked things into gear after the break. Josh Gasser supplied harassing defense and reserves Traevon Jackson (4 points) and Zak Showalter (6 points) chipped in off the bench for UW, which required every bit of its playing rotation to move on.
"We’ll take it from wherever we can get it," Badgers assistant coach Greg Gard said. "We’ve done that all year. We’ve kind of traded hats around the locker room on who’s going to help us out that night. Just as long as Wisconsin ends up on the left-hand side, that’s what we’re concerned about."
During the first half, UW played nothing like the juggernaut it had been all season in setting the program record for victories. Dekker made 6 of 8 shots and scored 15 points with several aggressive drives to the rim, but the rest of the team made 5 of 22 field-goal attempts and scored 16 points.
Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes, part of the frontcourt trio that dominated the first two rounds of the tournament, combined to shoot 3 of 13 and score nine points. Point guard Bronson Koenig was 0 for 6 with one point. So when Dekker’s tip-in at the buzzer brought Wisconsin to within 33-31 at halftime and marked the team’s first made basket in five minutes, the most optimistic viewpoint was the Badgers could not play any worse in the second half.
"There was a sense of urgency, definitely, while we were out there," said Kaminsky, who finished with 19 points and eight rebounds. "We knew we needed to go out there and get stops and make a run. But there is really nothing you can say in that situation to each other, other than go out there and do it. We don’t need to get in each other’s faces. We just know how to stay calm."
On two second-half occasions, North Carolina built its lead to seven points, the last of which came when Isaiah Hicks converted a layup for a 53-46 lead with 11:11 remaining. And at times, UW struggled to keep pace with UNC’s quickness. Wisconsin, which entered the night leading the country in fewest fouls committed per game at 12, tallied 18 for the contest. At one point, after Badgers forward Duje Dukan committed a seemingly ticky-tack foul, UW coach Bo Ryan berated officials, yelling, "Don’t give the blue-collar guys anything!"
Still, Wisconsin persevered. There was no panic, just as there was none a week ago when Oregon tied Wisconsin in the round of 32 with less than six minutes remaining.
"I just think the will to win this year is unlike any other that I’ve been a part of," said Dukan, a fifth-year senior who played 14 minutes. "Guys have such strong motivation and such determination to accomplish what we’ve set out for ourselves at the beginning of the season. We’ve built that confidence up knowing what we can accomplish in close games and pull them out. I think when we get in a scenario like we did today, it’s not a time to panic but more so just show what we’re capable of and rally back to get this pulled out."
Wisconsin trailed 60-59 when Showalter converted a backdoor layup off a pass from Gasser near the top of the key. On the ensuing possession, Showalter ripped the ball away from UNC guard Nate Britt and coasted in for a layup, giving Wisconsin a 63-60 lead — a sequence Hayes called the biggest of the game. Soon, Dekker scored again in the lane, and Wisconsin had a 65-60 lead thanks to a 9-0 run over the span of 1:29.
"I felt good from the start," said Dekker, who finished with a career-high 23 points and 10 rebounds. "So I just wanted to get out there and get some buckets, add a spark."
Wisconsin never gave the lead back despite North Carolina (26-12) creeping to within one point down the home stretch. Koenig’s two free throws gave Wisconsin a 73-70 lead with 42 seconds remaining, and he snagged a key rebound after Hicks missed two free throws on the next possession.
"I’ve heard people say before that the reason we lose is because we don’t know how to come back, but I don’t think that’s true," Koenig said. "We’ve been down before and we just kind of stayed true to our principles and kept playing."
The most significant development to emerge for Wisconsin was the return of Jackson, who made his first appearance in a game since he suffered a broken right foot against Rutgers on Jan. 11. He played nine minutes and was a valuable asset when Koenig dealt with foul trouble.
His presence will make Wisconsin an even tougher out in a tournament Badgers players think they have all the pieces to win.
"I really, truly believe we’re a national championship team," Jackson said. "That’s our goal, that’s our hope and, to do that, you have to have resiliency. Not everything is going to be pretty. To be able to go through these adverse situations and still believe is amazing. That’s what we still do."