INDIANAPOLIS - The University of Wisconsin has shattered multiple program records with an efficient offense that can shred any kind of defense put in its path. But when it comes down to the core, the foundation of the program is still its strong-willed defense.
And when its offense vanished against the best defensive unit in the country, Wisconsin fell back on its fundamentals to go to a place it hasn’t been in 74 years.
Despite being held without a field goal for 9 minutes, 9 seconds in the second half, the Badgers’ battle-tested group earned a final 40 minutes with a gritty, gutsy defensive effort in a 71-64 victory over previously unbeaten Kentucky in front of 72,238 at Lucas Oil Stadium Saturday night.
Four players reached double figures for the Badgers (36-3), who will play for their first national title since 1941 when they face Duke (34-4) in the national finals Monday night at 8:18 p.m. CT.
The Blue Devils used their inside game and its defense to brutalize Michigan State (27-12) in an 81-61 victory in the day’s earlier semifinal in much the same way the Badgers’ continuously punched Kentucky’s heralded front court.
Even though it started a lineup that rivaled the size of NBA teams, Wisconsin outrebounded Kentucky 34-22, including 12-6 on the offensive glass that led to a plus-7 edge in second-chance points.
“Out of everybody in the country, I thought we matched up probably the best against them,” said Bronson Koenig (12 points). “Style of play, size, our offense, we don’t really care who scores or who gets the ball.”
A year ago the Wildcats scored 23 second-chance points off 11 offensively rebounds, controlled the paint and tempo in their 74-73 win in Arlington, Texas. This year, not so much.
After UW’s frontcourt – Sam Dekker, Frank Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes – combined for 25 points (8 of 13) in last season’s ending loss, Kaminsky led all scorers with 20 points and 11 rebounds, Dekker had 16 points on 6 of 9 and Hayes had 12 points and five rebounds (four offensive).
“The ball bounces your way sometimes,” said Kaminsky. “It’s just the luck of the bounce sometimes. You saw how they got some bounces on some offensive rebounds as well. We just tried to do whatever we could to stay into them.”
A little bit of luck was certainly on their side, especially when Hayes’ put back to tie the game at 60 came after the shot clock showed “0” with the ball still in his hands (it couldn’t be reviewed over two minutes). But godsend had nothing to do with Wisconsin’s defense down the stretch.
The Badgers forced three shot clock violations and held a roster comprised on nine McDonald’s All-Americans to only six points in the final 7:50.
“We still pride ourselves on the defensive end,” said senior Josh Gasser. “We are better offensively. We have one of the better offenses in the country, but when it comes down to it, we still consider ourselves a tough, defensive-minded team. That’s what we’re going to hang our hat on.”
No play epitomized that more than Dekker’s 17 second stretch in crunch time. After hitting a 3-pointer with 1:42 remaining to give UW the lead for good, Dekker got in the right defensive positioning and drew an offensive foul on Trey Lyles, just the third charge Dekker has drawn this season. It marked the fifth straight possession UW held Kentucky scoreless.
“It was very important,” said Hayes. “It gave us an imaginary thing we call momentum that we definitely needed at that point in the game.
“They crowded a little bit, the guys got a little bit tentative,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari. “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.”
It was there for the taking for Wisconsin, a second half team that had turned four halftime deficits in the last six games to resounding wins with strong second sessions. It was the same case against the Wildcats, the number one team in the country in terms of defensive efficiency, by the Badgers scoring 16 points on their first eight possessions.
Doing with muscle, finesse and outside shooting, Wisconsin scored 16 points on its first eight possessions of the second half, including three straight 3-point plays, to take a 52-44 lead.
But then the well dried up, and the Badgers appeared to be done. Over the next 10:17, Wisconsin made only two shots and didn’t score a point for 6:08 of them, resulting in an 8-point lead flipping into a four point deficit and a world of trouble on a 16-4 run.
No stretch was more critical than the one around the eight minute mark. Stuck in a shooting rut, Koenig buried a 3-pointer that would have extended the lead to 59-56 but had the play wiped out when Gasser was called for an offensive foul after releasing the pass.
It turned out to be a five-point swing when Aaron Harrison (12 points) scored on the other end to take a 58-56 lead and UW was stuck in its field goal drought.
“When we went on that drought we knew we had to lock in on defense and make it super tough for them to get anything,” said Koenig.
On the next five possessions, Andrew Harrison missed three jumpers, Aaron Harrison and Trey Lyles couldn’t convert and Lyles ran over Dekker, giving UW more and more life with each passing possession.
“At the heart of this program, that’s what it is: it’s a lot of toughness and it’s a lot of grit,” said associate head coach Greg Gard. “Obviously we’re extremely talented, we know that. We’ve got great players, but when it comes to those types of situations, you’ve got to reach back a little bit and dig in.”
They did, which earned them a spot in the national finals after taking down the trendy pick.
“I think people believed that we could do it, but there’s a difference in believe you can do it and believing that you will do it,” said Gasser. “I truly believed that we were going to win this game. I truly believe we were going to win the Big Ten, make it to the national championship. I truly believe we’re going to win it.”