INDIANAPOLIS – There will be no perfect season for the Kentucky Wildcats.
Wisconsin took care of that Saturday night in dramatic fashion, knocking off unbeaten and top ranked Kentucky 71-64 before a crowd of 72,238 at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Duke beat the Badgers 80-70 at Wisconsin the ACC/Big Ten Challenge earlier this season.
Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan talked about how proud he was of the way the Badgers were able to win. Kentucky had a roster with nine McDonald’s All-Americans. Wisconsin does not have a single one.
“You know, people can say what they want about we don't have X-number of All-Americans, we don't have this (or that),’’ Ryan said. “I've never in life looked at what you don't have, I've always looked at what we do have and what can we do with it. So to have these upperclassmen when they were underclassmen, and to work with them and to try to keep them focused. So many young people now want to transfer when they see, ‘Oh, man, I might be buried two guys behind this position, two guys behind that position.’ You know, we've had a few guys transfer in 14 years, but not very many. And this group is doing what it's doing right now because they've stuck to what they believe in and worked extremely hard in the off-season, each season.
“Now they're veterans. So many of these guys have been here before. So I definitely have enjoyed working with young men like this and building a team with seniors, juniors, sophomores and freshmen. It works for us.’’
Monday night’s national championship game will be a rematch for the two teams. Duke beat the Badgers 80-70 at Wisconsin the ACC/Big Ten Challenge earlier this season.
That earlier loss to Duke was not lost on Ryan in his postgame press conference.
“We played a team that kicked our butt,’’ Ryan said. “In my mind, that's all I'm thinking of. Great win for our guys. We have a very short turnaround with the late game. We got some work to do. These guys need to get back and get some rest. Hopefully we'll be energized for Monday night. It's a nice feeling to know that you've got a chance. A little bit better than Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber. There were times where it was a million-to-one, but not this time.’’
Kentucky coach John Calipari also talked about how proud he was of his team that had opened the season with 38 victories in a row.
“What they did all year, just took us all on a ride, our staff, our school, our state,’’ Calipari said. “Took us on a ride. We all wanted to win those last two. These kids wanted to win it in the worst way. But you have to give Wisconsin credit. They did to us what we have done to teams. I'm going to look at the tape. There's some things I probably should have done, a timeout here, I maybe should have changed up something.
“But we normally execute down the stretch, and we didn't. They did. They made plays down there and we didn't. Can't take that away. I know everybody is going to say, This season... This season is historic. I just can't believe anybody is going to do what these kids just did to get to this point unblemished with the schedule they played, then how they did it.’’
Wisconsin closed the game on a 15-4 run as Kentucky was only able to manage one field goal in the final six and a half minutes.
The Wisconsin victory avenged a 74-73 loss to Kentucky in last year’s national semifinals.
“For me personally, it ruins the year for us,’’ said Kentucky freshman and Indiana native Trey Lyles.
Sam Dekker broke a 60-all tie with a huge 3-point field goal from the top of the key with 1:40 to play to put the Badgers on top for good at 63-30. He then took a charge at the other end of the floor. Dekker finished with 16 points.
“We called something to get Frank (Kaminsky) to get a ball screen for myself,’’ Dekker said. “Usually that's something that has been working for us as of late. I came off it. Karl-Anthony (Towns) got on his heels a little bit. Thought I was going to drive. I was able to free up some space on a setback.
“Off my hand, I knew it was down. I was waiting for a good look like that all night. They did a great job blocking off in the driving lanes, easy shots for myself. When I had that look, I knew I had to put it up. I knew it was good off the hand.’’
Wisconsin hit eight of 10 free throws in the final 1:06 to be able to pull away and win.
Frank Kaminsky, who made the final two free throws with 4.4 seconds to play, led the Badgers with 20 points. Kaminsky was honored on Friday as the Associated Press national player of the year.
For Kentucky, the season ended with a 38-1 record. The Wildcats were bidding to become just the eighth undefeated national champion in history and the first since Indiana pulled off the feat going 32-0 to win the 1976 national championship.
In the locker room following the game, Kentucky players sat quietly and said nothing.
“Everybody is stunned,’’ Lyles said. “Everybody is in disbelief. Everybody has a lot of emotions running through their heads.’’
Wisconsin led by as many as nine in the first half but Kentucky kept fighting back and the game was tied at 36 at intermission.
In the second half, a Bronson Koenig 3-pointer from the top of the key with 14:43 to play put the Badgers up by eight at 52-44.
But that was short lived, too. Kentucky roared back and when Karl-Anthony Towns hit a 6-footer in the lane with 6:35 to play, the Wildcats were back up by four at 60-56.
Towns led Kentucky with 16 points.
Wisconsin then went on an 8-0 run and took control of the game at 64-60.
Calipari said Kentucky didn’t do anything differently after it had the four-point lead late.
“We didn't slow it down,’’ he said. “We were trying to post the ball, run the pick'n rolls, the stuff we were running. They crowded a little bit, the guys got a little bit tentative. We were trying to still play. The thing that was tough is we are a finishing team, that's what we've been, and we didn't. They did and we didn't. That's why they're still playing and we're not.’’