LOS ANGELES - It’s a play that won’t show up in the box score or make the national highlight shows, the kind of plays senior guard Josh Gasser has been delivering for the University of Wisconsin for four of the past five seasons.
And if it wasn’t made, perhaps the Badgers’ road to the Final Four would be over.
“Nobody is going to acknowledge that play,” said assistant coach Lamont Paris following Wisconsin’s 85-78 victory over Arizona at Staples Center Saturday. “It was a vital play at that juncture in the game.”
Leading 74-66 with 3 minutes, 21 seconds remaining and Arizona starting to pull out a full court press, sophomore Nigel Hayes had little inbounding options except to try a baseball pass to Gasser down past the half-court stripe. The pass was off, causing it to be tipped by the defense and set off a scramble.
No problem for Gasser, who typically delivers on the hustle plays that require an extra dose of moxie.
“I’m telling you, when that ball was about to hit the ground, it was there ball,” said Paris. “They were closer. They were closer to getting that ball. It was a huge play. Josh comes out of nowhere and there was no way he’s not getting it.”
Instead of Arizona getting the turnover and scoring at the other end to further chip into the lead, Gasser hit 1 of 2 free throws to push the lead back to nine.
“I read it from a mile away,” said Gasser, smiling. “A terrible pass from my teammate, so I thought I’d go bail him out. Just one of those plays that you have to get and I was able to beat the guy to it. Unfortunately I missed a free throw on it, but at least it turned the momentum a little bit and didn’t let them get an open layup.”
Gasser often jokes that he doesn’t need to be a scorer for the Badgers, not with Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker proving more than capable of carrying the burden. That was true against the Wildcats with Kaminsky pouring in 29 and Dekker scoring 20 of his 27 in the second half, but Gasser joined the three on the West Region All-Tournament team by having a little scoring flair himself.
His 10 points were the most he’s scored since Feb.3, and his production was far reaching in the second half. He assisted on Kaminsky’s 3-pointer to tie the score on the first series in the second half, had a steal that led to a Nigel Hayes’ 3-pointer, registered a near dunk to put UW up 11 and a cold-blooded 3-pointer a little over three minutes later to keep the lead at 11.
“(Arizona) didn’t want me getting any open threes, just whenever I’m on the wing Coach (Sean) Miller is yelling ‘3-point shooter, 3-point shooter, 3-point shooter, don’t leave him open,’” said Gasser, who went 2 of 3 from 3-point range. “I knew I wasn’t going to get many looks, but the ones I got, especially at the end of the shot clock, you just have to be confidence and knock them down.”
“When I get my opportunity I’m going to try to make the most of it,” he added. “(Saturday) I hit some big ones.”
One of the four returning starters from last year’s squad, Gasser and his teammates knew making a return run to the Final Four was an obtainable goal. That could be why the postgame celebration, while still full of jumps for joy, laughter and excitement, was a little more subdued than it was a year ago after they beat Arizona in overtime.
“It’s definitely different,” said Gasser. “Last year was like we’re on top of the world. This is a great feeling, trust me, but it’s almost like let’s go on to the next game. It’s a great accomplishment to get to the Final Four. We’ve accomplished everything we’ve set out for this year to this point. The big goal is still to be had and we have an opportunity, so why not take advantage of it?”
Taking his turn climbing the ladder, Gasser cut a few pieces of the nylon net and raised his left arm in triumph. More importantly, he turned to the steadily growing cheering section behind the Badgers bench and screamed four words.
We ain’t done yet.