House of pain: Badgers suffer heartbreaking loss in Final Four
ARLINGTON, Texas — Heartbreak is an opponent’s go-ahead 3-point attempt rippling through the net with 5.7 seconds remaining in the biggest college basketball game Wisconsin’s team has ever played. It is a pull-up jump shot from the Badgers’ most clutch performer, Traevon Jackson, clanging off the rim as time expires to vaporize any last bastion of hope.
It is the stunning finality of a spectacular season falling short of an attainable goal, of Wisconsin forward Sam Dekker putting his arm around teammate Josh Gasser on the court because words can’t express the pain. It is Evan Anderson, a little-used reserve in the last game of his college career, sobbing loudly and uncontrollably into the shoulder of teammate Duje Dukan and then Gasser afterward in the team locker room.
Heartbreak is the final score, which will remain etched into history forever.
Kentucky 74, Wisconsin 73.
"One point away from going to the national championship game," Dekker said. "It’s always going to be on my mind now for the rest of my life."
Saturday night, No. 2 seed Wisconsin and No. 8 seed Kentucky staged a national semifinal game at the Final Four for the ages — a statement made without hyperbole. In the final three minutes alone, the lead changed hands three times with a spot opposite UConn in the title game hanging in the balance.
First, Kentucky forward Alex Poythress converted a layup off a lob pass from Andrew Harrison to put the Wildcats ahead 71-69 with 2:16 remaining. Then, with the game tied at 71 and 16.4 seconds left, Jackson drew a foul on Harrison on a 3-point attempt as the shot clock approached zero.
To that point, Wisconsin had made all 17 of its free-throw attempts. But Jackson, a 77.3 percent free-throw shooter, made 2 of 3 tries, which opened the door for another set of heroics from Aaron Harrison, Andrew’s twin brother.
Aaron Harrison caught a pass on the left wing, thrown by his brother from the corner. He collected the ball, stared at Gasser and rose up over him for a shot so deep, his left shoe was near the out of bounds line. The 3-point attempt — from nearly the same spot Harrison hit a winner against Michigan in the Elite Eight — rattled into the net to give Kentucky a 74-73 lead with 5.7 seconds left.
It was Harrison’s only 3-point attempt of the contest.
"I don’t know if he made a shot all game," Gasser said. "I was covering him the entire game, and he didn’t really look to pull. You could kind of see in his eyes that he wanted to make a play. I tried to contest the best I could, and he made another tough shot."
Wisconsin used a timeout to draw up one more play for the man who, more than any other, showed a willingness to take the final shot all season. Jackson, a lefty, dribbled to his left and found a spot on the floor where he has experienced great success. Earlier this season, for example, he buried a game-winning jump shot against Michigan State from there.
This time, he created space on Aaron Harrison, but the ball banged off the backboard and clipped the front rim before bounding off as the buzzer sounded, sending Kentucky players running into each others’ arms and Wisconsin players into total shock.
Though Jackson said he had to adjust because he was hit on the arm on his release, he thought the shot would be good anyway.
"Sometimes we don’t know why things happen, especially when you believe it and it doesn’t happen, you take a step back," Jackson said. "We’ve just got to keep going on."
Added Dekker: "It was just kind of shocking. I just kind of sat there. Couldn’t cry. Couldn’t smile. Kind of chuckled to myself and thought, ‘What just happened?’"
Saturday’s game featured a matchup of stunning contrasts. Kentucky (29-10) possessed a five-star rotation of freshmen and future NBA players. Wisconsin, meanwhile, clung to a group of tough-nosed veterans, whose collective talent carried the program to new heights this season under coach Bo Ryan. And a common refrain heard leading up to the game was that Wisconsin would not be able to keep pace with Kentucky’s stable of young talent.
Consider that Kentucky started the game with five freshmen on the court. In 13 seasons at Wisconsin, Ryan had started a total of four freshmen.
Kentucky’s athleticism shone through during stretches, with a bevy of impressive dunks and alley-oops. The Wildcats made a swift move with a 15-0 second-half run, which turned the game from a 43-36 Wisconsin lead to a 51-43 Kentucky edge, and the teams engaged in a blow-for-blow battle the rest of the way.
The game was played in front of an announced crowd of 79,444, which represented the largest audience to ever witness a college basketball game. It broke the previous mark of 78,129, set at Ford Field in Detroit in 2003. And it also lived up to a billing befitting of such a record crowd, coming down to one final shot for the right to a championship game appearance.
Wisconsin closed its season 30-8, and its 73.5 points-per-game average was the highest ever under Ryan.
"I really love coaching this team," Ryan said, past tense not yet entering his vocabulary. "I knew they had something in them. It was just trying to get it out of them sometimes that was a little bit of a challenge. But they answered it. They answered everything."
Everything, that is, except for the final seconds of a remarkable season. And the result was a heartbreaking loss that surely will linger for quite some time.
"We should have won the game," Gasser said. "I still think we’re better. We could have easily won that game. They’re really, really good. I think we’re really, really good. It was a one-possession game.
"Obviously with their talent, it’s hard to beat them. But we had a chance, and we were right there."
Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter