Badgers awake from ‘bad dream’ to find themselves with missed title opportunity

INDIANAPOLIS — Belief is a powerful tool. It can lift the spirit from the depths of despair and will the human body to a place that may not otherwise seem possible. And when that conviction diffuses through an entire basketball team, coupled with a level of talent unmatched in school history, a truly special unity can happen.

It was this combination of skill and faith that convinced Wisconsin’s players months ago they would be here Monday night, playing for a national championship. They were certain they would beat any team in their path, sure they would capture the program’s first title in 74 years because nothing could stop them. Not North Carolina in the Sweet 16. Not Arizona in the Elite Eight. Not even undefeated Kentucky in the Final Four.

But the coronation, the celebration of the single greatest team the program had ever seen did not take place. Instead, when the final buzzer sounded and the confetti dropped around Lucas Oil Stadium, the party raged for someone else. The Badgers were suddenly unwanted guests in the bash they believed would belong to them.

Moments earlier, Duke had squeezed past Wisconsin 68-63 to capture the national championship before 71,149 fans in a game that lived up to every bit of allowable hype, a blow-for-blow affair that came down to the final minutes. It ended with Badgers players walking off in silence amid the deafening rumble of music, heads staring at the ground or into the vast expanse of the arena, a space in the distance that did not contain the answers they were seeking.

"I couldn’t even believe what I was seeing," Badgers forward Duje Dukan said. "It almost felt like a bad dream."

Sam Dekker tugged his jersey up near his mouth. Frank Kaminsky hugged Josh Gasser and pulled his head in close as the confetti floated around them, two seniors who had done so much for the program, only to see it end in devastating fashion in their final college game. Gasser stood there, near Wisconsin’s bench, his hands on his knees, bent over in shock, while teammates tried unsuccessfully to console him.

How could he explain the feeling? He had seen the program’s rise from Big Ten contender to national power, seen up close the effort required to reach this level, approached the mountaintop only to watch it slip away in a flash. It was all so hard to swallow, he said, because the team knew a win was there for the taking thanks to a trust so strong it could not be broken.

No, it wasn’t supposed to be over like this.

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"Life’s not fair sometimes," Gasser said, tears having given way to red, glossed eyes in front of his locker. "You work so hard. You believe you’re going to win it. You put so much blood, sweat and tears into it that no one else understands except for the 16 guys in the locker room."

The idea of belief had become part of the team’s mantra. Make ‘Em Believe, they uttered again and again back in October — believe that last season’s Final Four run wasn’t a fluke, that they could push over the hump and be as good as any team in the country. And it became such a rallying cry that the team wore the phrase on pregame warmup shirts.

Where did everything careen off the championship path? Wisconsin led, 48-39, with 13:25 remaining in Monday’s game after Kaminsky, the national player of the year, freed himself under the basket for an easy lay-up off an in-bounds pass. The highly partisan Wisconsin crowd, taking full advantage of Kentucky fans’ ticket dump after the national semifinal, roared with approval, and the Badgers seemed poised to polish off the Blue Devils.

During the entire NCAA tournament, this was exactly the place where Wisconsin had shined. The Badgers never panicked in tight, late-game situations, demonstrating a resolve and an undeniable camaraderie that had formed over years together. They were a group that could not be separated between practices this season. Often, they would spend hours in the locker room playing video games, cracking jokes and simply loving life. It was a near-perfect blend of players: fun loving, free of ego and exceptionally talented, and it manifested on the court in remarkable ways.

This time, however, the moment players expected escaped them. They could not grind away and demoralize their opponent with the same beautiful, crisp basketball that had come to define them.

"They said what they wanted to do, they put themselves into that position, and they won’t forget this for a long time," Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. "I told them that’s life. Wait until you get a job. Wait until you start the next 60 or 70 years of your life. It’s not always going to work out the way you would like it to. But you measure a person by what it takes to discourage them."

The game began to change when Duke guard Grayson Allen buried a 3-pointer from the right wing and then converted a three-point play at the rim, drawing a foul on Dekker, to provide the Blue Devils life. A nine-point lead had been cut to 48-45, and the teams engaged in a seesaw battle from there.

Dekker converted a layup off Bronson Koenig’s pass to break the last tie and give Wisconsin a 58-56 edge with 4:25 remaining. But it proved to be the Badgers’ final lead. On the ensuing possession, Duke guard Tyus Jones drained a 3 from just left of the key, and the Blue Devils pulled ahead 59-58 — the start of a decisive 12-5 run to close the game.

Duke freshman center Jahlil Okafor, who battled foul trouble all game, came through in the waning minutes. He scored on a spinning layup, finishing on the other side of the glass while Kaminsky grabbed him, and the momentum shifted as Duke’s lead grew to 61-58 with 3:14 left.

"We knew he was a bad free-throw shooter, so Frank tried to foul him, but he was able to muscle through that," Badgers forward Nigel Hayes said. "Getting that and-one gives that team energy and definitely if we get that foul, he’ll definitely miss those two free throws for us, and it may be a different conversation right now."

Kaminsky could not answer on the other end, and his shot hit the backboard and bounded away for a shot clock violation. When Okafor put back Justise Winslow’s miss, Duke led 63-58, and the result was all but certain. Wisconsin could not creep closer than three points from there, and Duke (35-4) pulled away for its fifth national championship under head coach Mike Krzyzewski.

"We came against a team that was more of a force, that was stronger than ours today," Badgers point guard Traevon Jackson said. "They made plays when they needed to. You could just see it on the expression of their faces."

Wisconsin finished the year 36-4, the single-season record for victories. But perspective would have to wait. In the locker room, there was only silence, interrupted by sobs for the second straight season in the Final Four. The Badgers had come one step closer this year, but that hardly resonated late Monday night amid the gloom.

"This is one that no one’s going to be able to take away from us," Dekker said. "All 16 guys as a whole know that this is the closest team we’ve ever been a part of. It’s all right to show emotions. We’re still men, but when something’s taken from you like this, it’s hard not to show them."

Kaminsky closed his college career with 21 points and 12 rebounds and became the first player to record two double-doubles in the Final Four since Carmelo Anthony for Syracuse in 2003. Hayes finished with 13 points, Dekker 12 and Koenig 10. And though Wisconsin had played well enough to win for long stretches, it wasn’t enough on a monumental night players won’t be able to forget.

"All of us felt like we were the best team in the country," Dukan said. "All year we talked about that, that we were the best team in the country. We were going to be national champions."

They believed it until the very end.