Sam Dekker dribbled twice and glided like a gazelle into the 3-point line with the game clock ticking away here Saturday night. He rose, released a high-arcing, feathery moonball on the right wing near the team bench and watched as it hung in the air for a veritable eternity. It was enough time for teammates to experience a full scope of emotions — hope, doubt, awe — at an attempt that could help lift Wisconsin’s basketball team back to the Final Four.
"Buckets," yelled point guard Traevon Jackson from the bench.
"Right on the money," guard Josh Gasser thought from his spot near half court.
"No, no, no," forward Duje Dukan opined.
Then, as the ball sailed closer and dropped through the net with 17.6 seconds remaining, an explosion of cheers and applause diffused through the Badgers’ side. Dekker strutted down the court. Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan patted his backside. And the celebration of a clinching basket in Dekker’s defining college performance was on.
Dekker’s shot put the finishing touches on a second-half team shooting display — which may not be duplicated for quite some time — during No. 1 seed Wisconsin’s 85-78 victory against No. 2 seed Arizona at Staples Center in the NCAA tournament West Region Elite Eight. He scored a career-high 27 points and made all five of his 3-point tries in the second half, as Wisconsin (35-3) earned a Final Four rematch of last year’s national semifinal against Kentucky (38-0).
"I had to get it up a little higher," said Dekker, who earned the West Region’s Most Outstanding Player award two days after scoring 23 points against North Carolina in the Sweet 16. "But actually I had a good, clean look at the rim. I just had to put a lot of arc on it and kind of float it towards the rim. It felt good off the hand."
So did seemingly everything he threw at the rim on a night in which he hit 8 of 11 field-goal attempts. Dekker, the 6-foot-9 junior and former five-star recruit from Sheboygan, Wis., who never could do enough to please a fan base with sky-high expectations, showcased every bit of the skill set that made him such a highly coveted player. His final 3 over the outstretched arm of Arizona forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson put Wisconsin ahead 84-76 and dashed Arizona’s hopes of reaching the final weekend for a second consecutive season.
"I was so happy he hit it on Rondae, too," Jackson said. "I guess he was talking stuff before the game. He’s a good dude, a good player, but he’s not better than Sam. That was great to see that. And I don’t usually say stuff about players, but I didn’t like that. That was great to see Sam go out and go to work. That was awesome."
Dekker’s heroics, coupled with center Frank Kaminsky’s 29 points and six rebounds, were needed because Arizona (34-4) was every bit as good as advertised. The Wildcats entered the game ranked third nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency and held the Badgers in check during a rugged first half. Arizona led 33-30 at halftime and seemed destined to help head coach Sean Miller win his first Elite Eight game in four tries.
"This was one of those times where it was just that look we give each other," Badgers forward Nigel Hayes said of the halftime scene. "We shouldn’t be in that situation. But it was a look like, ‘All right, guys, here we go again.’ … Nothing’s said, but the look says it all."
What followed was an 11-1 Wisconsin surge out of halftime that turned the tide of the game. Not surprisingly, Kaminsky and Dekker were heavily involved in the run. Kaminsky buried a 3 from just right of the top of the key to tie the game at 33, holding up three fingers as he jogged down the court. Dekker then drained a 3 off Kaminsky’s interior pass, and Kaminsky scored the next five points for a 41-34 Badgers lead.
Arizona cut the deficit to 47-46 on Brandon Ashley’s layup with 13:48 remaining. But 16 seconds later, Dekker made another 3 and the Wildcats could not creep closer than two points the rest of the way.
"That’s the best I’ve ever seen him play, and I’ve been playing with him for years now, going back to AAU," Badgers point guard Bronson Koenig said. "Just that second half was pretty crazy for him."
Dekker was so hot — and confident — that after making one of his 3s from the left corner, he stared down a section of Arizona fans that had been yelling his name throughout.
"If you follow us, I like to play with some energy, some spunk," Dekker said. "I get a little bit of a swagger sometimes if I’m feeling good. That’s just part of basketball. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a little emotion, a little trash talk. That stuff is all part of the game. But you have to back it up at the same time. That was just a little glare. That stuff happens. It’s basketball."
In the end, Wisconsin shot an astounding 78.9 percent from the field in the second half (15 of 19) and made 83.3 percent of its 3s (10 of 12). For the game, UW set season highs against Arizona for points scored (85), shooting percentage (.556), 3-pointers made (12) and 3-point percentage (.667).
"This one I’m going to enjoy quite a bit because Arizona gave us everything they had," Ryan said. "And I’m sure Sean is looking at that and going, ‘Come on, how many times is that going to happen?’"
Added Arizona’s Miller: "No team has done what they did to us in the second half. That’s to their credit. They made shots, and if they play like that next weekend, they have a chance to win it all."
When the issue was no longer in doubt in the waning seconds, Dekker winked at Hayes and collected a big hug from Kaminsky. Wisconsin’s players donned black hats with gold lettering that read "Regional Champs," and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers walked on the court and gave a bro hug and a high-five to Dekker. The team took a Twitter selfie on the podium, Ryan hugged his wife, Kelly, and bent down to hug three granddaughters, and players took turns cradling the regional championship trophy.
It was a celebration players had expected all season, the third net-cutting ceremony this month after Wisconsin won the Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles. Perhaps a loss would not have constituted a failure for the season, but it surely would have represented a major disappointment for the most talented team in school history — a group that already has surpassed the single-season program record for victories.
Now, the Badgers want more. And they’ll certainly get all they can handle at the Final Four against one of the best college basketball teams in generations.
"It’s a different feeling this year," Gasser said on the floor during the net-cutting ceremony. "Last year, it was like the end of the world we made it there. Now it’s like, all right, what’s next? We’ve got a good feeling right now."