After having two fouls in the first half, Hayes picked up his third foul 25 seconds into the second half, sat for just under seven minutes and committed a turnover on his first offensive possession back on the court.
A less confident player might have started to shut it down offensively from that point forward, especially since Hayes threw up a couple bad-looking shots in the first half with Wisconsin’s offense struggling. Hayes might have turned into that player had he not delivered on a play he needed to make seconds later.
Senior Josh Gasser recovered Hayes’ turnover with a steal of his own and set up the sophomore for a 3-pointer that gave UW a necessary boost down the stretch of its 85-78 victory over two-seed Arizona in the West Regional finals at the Staples Center Saturday.
“With all the work I’ve put in, I’m not going to get down on myself because I airballed a three and miss another one,” said Hayes. “I am definitely going to keep shooting the shot. I’ve worked hard enough. I know those shots are going in. I just have to shoot them.”
Three possessions later, Hayes hit another 3-pointer to put the Badgers up 60-51 with 9:36 remaining. Hayes finished with 8 points on 3 of 6 shooting, the first time this postseason he was held to single digits, and his three rebounds were the lowest since Feb.24 as he battled through a game in which 43 combined fouls were called.
“(The lack of rhythm) definitely presents some problems, but you have to be mentally tough and get past that,” said Hayes, who was limited to 26 minutes because of four fouls. “You are not running up and down, got a good lather going on, so when I do get in, I don’t try to do too much to make up for lost time.”
Hayes managed to contribute in other ways, including having a team-high four assists (all in the first half), one steal and only that one turnover.
“He didn't get down on himself,” said UW coach Bo Ryan. “There were some fouls that he felt that he didn't commit, imagine that, and he was getting a little frustrated. Then an air ball, that is not Nigel Hayes. But he didn't get down. He didn't pout. He came back and really defensively did a nice job for us and also hit some big shots. Those two threes in the second half were huge.”
Rematch with Big Blue
The foundation for Wisconsin’s success this season was predicated on the Badgers returning four starters and seven of their top eight scorers from last year’s Final Four team, but that success was cultured and motivated by how last season painfully and swiftly ended at the hands of Kentucky.
Wisconsin players have danced around a potential rematch all season but won’t be able to do so any longer after the top-seeded Wildcats survived a 68-66 grinder to third-seed Notre Dame in the Midwest Regional final Saturday night in Cleveland.
The Wildcats (38-0) are trying to become the first team since Indiana in 1975-76 to finish the season unbeaten. Wisconsin is trying to win its first national championship since 1941.
“They're not totally satisfied,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said of his team. “They feel there is more out there.”
The Wildcats are stacked with NBA talent, have a deep roster and, like Wisconsin, return a lot of the same personnel as a season ago. They also have plenty of talented freshmen, including Karl-Anthony Towns, who scored 25 points to lead the Wildcats over the Irish.
Kentucky shot 25 of 20 in the second half and 25 of 47 overall Saturday night, but needed guard Andrew Harrison to make two free throws with six seconds left and dodge a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
It’s similar to what Kentucky did to Wisconsin last year, as Aaron Harrison hit a contested 3-pointer in the final seconds and dodged a Traevon Jackson jumper at the buzzer to win 74-73. Kentucky lost to seventh-seed Connecticut in the national finals two days later.
“We’ll definitely be excited for that,” said senior Duje Dukan. “How the situation played out last year, it was definitely tough for us, but I think it definitely guided us and motivated us in the offseason to put us where we are today.”
Out of Comfort
Arizona entered Saturday second nationally in rebound margin at plus-nine (37.2-28.2) and was averaging 7.1 steals per game, numbers they didn’t come close to against the Badgers. The Wildcats only finished plus-1 on the boards (22-21) and could only force five steals. UW also had nine turnovers and haven’t had double figured in miscues since finishing with 10 against Nicholls Dec.13.
“Their offensive execution and their ability to make shots in the second half, it was like a video game," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "I'd like to blame our players or (say) we weren't playing hard. Let me just tell you, Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky, they're really good. And their offense is the No. 1 offense in the nation, and no team has done what they did to us in the second half.
“That's to their credit. They made shots, and if they play like that next weekend, they have a chance to win it all. So I credit them getting back-to-back Final Fours is quite an accomplishment. And Bo Ryan is a tremendous coach and I wish him well.”
On Wisconsin’s last three trips to the Final Four, the Badgers have defeated Arizona.
“I don't really care who is guarding me at this point. I'm just going to try to do whatever I can to help our team. However they want to play us is fine. We'll make adjustments to whatever, and we're ready for whatever. We know we're going to see a lot of different things in the tournament, and no one wants to go home. So they're going to change up their defenses and do whatever. If you see how our whole team played in that second half, it doesn't really matter to us. We're just going to figure out a way to win the game.” – Frank Kaminsky
Free Throws: After outscoring Wisconsin 9-0 in transition in the first half, the Wildcats did not score in transition after halftime, turning the ball over on two of their three transition opportunities … Wisconsin averaged 1.67 points per possession in the second half, the second-most efficient half for any team in the 2015 NCAA Tournament (Wisconsin - 1.68 in 1st half vs. Coastal Carolina). For the game, the Badgers averaged 1.33 points per possession, Arizona's worst defensive efficiency in the last four seasons … Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker combined for 56 points, including 36 in the second half. The duo scored or assisted on 71 percent of Wisconsin's second-half points … The Wildcats are 11-4 (.733) under head coach Sean Miller in the NCAA tournament, reaching four Sweet 16s, three Elite Eights and no Final Fours.