But with the program's first Final Four berth in 14 seasons on the line, Wisconsin relied on the program's calling card, which finally led them to the promise land.
Coming up with big stop after big stop down the stretch, the Badgers saved the best for last, as Wisconsin didn't allow Nick Johnson to get a shot off in the final 2.3 seconds and clinch a 64-63 overtime victory over top-seeded Arizona in the West regional final in front of 17,184 fans at the Honda Center.
The Final Four is the first for Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, considered the missing piece of his sparking resume, and it comes on the day of his late father's 90th birthday and on the 73rd anniversary of the school's one and only national championship.
"We want a national championship now," junior Frank Kaminsky said. "We have made it to the opportunity to get there, so why not go get it?"
Wisconsin may just accomplish that became of Kaminsky. Named the West region's most valuable player, Kaminsky scored a game-high 28 points – the second most points in a tournament game for a UW player in school history - and grabbed 11 rebounds.
Going 11-for-20 from the floor, Kaminsky was the only starter who shot over 40 percent, as the Badgers were held to 39.3 percent shooting by a defense that held 21 of its 38 opponents under the 40 percent mark.
"The momentum swing was Frank's play," said junior Duje Dukan. "Collectively Frank did a great job of posting inside and making some big buckets down the stretch. I think we all rallied around him, realized he would be a big force in carrying us to this spot and I think that was definitely the turning point."
A seesaw affair that saw seven ties and yielded plenty of tension in the second half, Wisconsin and Arizona (33-5) traded punches well into overtime, each answering one another's bucket with one of its own for the first two minutes of the extra session. UW took the lead for good after Kaminsky made a tough right-handed hook shot in the face of 7-0 center Kaleb Tarczewski.
On the ensuing possession, Josh Gasser – who finished 1-for-5 shooting – wrestled away a rebound from Tarczewski after Nick Johnson's shot rimmed out and drew a foul.
Following Gasser going 1-for-2 from the line and Tarczewski making a pair of foul shots on the ensuing possession, Kaminsky delivered the eventual winner, tipping in an offensive rebound off a Traevon Jackson miss to put UW up 64-61 with 1:11 remaining. Despite Arizona's length inside, the Wildcats barely outrebounded Wisconsin 39-38 and were dead tied on the offensive glass at 13 apiece.
But it was the defense that carried Wisconsin to the final line. With Arizona able to hold for the final shot, Gasser drew a questionable charge call on Johnson with 3.2 seconds left when the Pac-12 player of the year drove the lane and appeared to lower his left shoulder into Gasser at the high block.
In the final 10:25, Gasser held Johnson without a point, helping UW beat a top four seed in the tournament under Ryan for the first time.
"Josh Gasser is tough as nails," said senior Ben Brust. "I knew coming into this game that he was going to be a big part of this win, whether he scored or didn't score, I knew he was going to contribute to helping us get this victory, and that charge at the end really helped."
Jackson – Wisconsin's Mr. Clutch - had a chance to win it in regulation and got a good look, but was just short on his step back attempt from just inside the 3-point range. He also grazed an inbounds pass out of bounds following Gasser's drawn charge, a review that took approximately five minutes, giving the ball back to Arizona with 2.3 seconds left in the extra session and the Wildcats down one.
But the junior made up for it on the final play, meeting Johnson at the 3-point line and cutting off his driving lane to the basket, allowing just enough time to tick off and the celebration to commence.
"I think this year we've broken a lot of barriers," said Jackson, who was second on UW with 10 points. "We've won so many different ways."
Johnson led the Wildcats with 16 points and Aaron Gordon had 18 rebounds to make up for his 3-for-11 shooting, but the Wildcats fell to 0-4 in Anaheim and are the first team in NCAA tournament history to lose four Elite Eight games by three points or fewer.
"I'm really happy for Bo Ryan," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "For him to be able to take the next step, very deserving. We lost today to an excellent team. It wasn't as if we didn't get the job done or we played bad. That was an incredible game."
Arizona entered the regional final being lauded for its stingy defense. Fifth best in the country in scoring defense, allowing only 58.4 points per game, the Wildcats were allowing only 61.3 points through three tournament games.
Although UW's 64 points were the seventh fewest they had scored all season, the Badgers' 1.04 points per possession was fifth best on Arizona. Wisconsin made the shots when they counted, going 4-for-6 in overtime.
Ranked No.1 in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com, Arizona limited Wisconsin to only 35.7 percent shooting in the first half, but the Badgers trailed by only three based on the stat that Wisconsin, despite Arizona's size in the post, had 10 points in the paint and a 22-14 advantage on the boards, including 8-3 edge on the offensive glass.
Wisconsin also flexed its muscles defensively, holding the Wildcats to 39.1 percent shooting and no points in the final 2:54 of the first half.
That was good news for Wisconsin considering they'd outscored its three NCAA opponents 131-77 in the second half and got right back in the mix of things with a 14-4 run early in the second half, giving Wisconsin its biggest lead at 41-35 with 13:11 remaining.
From that point on it was two teams trading punches until Wisconsin landed the final one at the buzzer, punching their ticket to the Final Four.
"This is like nothing else I've ever felt before," said Kaminsky. "We've all played basketball our whole lives and we've all dreamed of going to the Final Four. To actually accomplish that is something I can't put into words. But we all know we still have a lot of basketball left. We've got 40 more minutes."