INDIANAPOLIS – Listed on page two of the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball press release is a statistic that has defined the best season in program history.
On an 8-0 postseason run, Wisconsin closed out its opponents – including four who will likely end the year ranked in the top 15 – with superlative shooting, clutch free throws and some timely defense thrown in for good measure. No matter the opponent, the Badgers have shown the ability to finish what they start.
It’s been the backbone of the Badgers, which was why it made game number 40 for Wisconsin so hard to swallow.
“All you can ask for is an opportunity and a shot, and we had it, and we just didn’t get it done” said senior Josh Gasser, one of the many players struggling to put into words the 68-63 loss to Duke in the national championship game Monday night. “Life’s not fair sometimes.”
The confetti fell on them for the second time in 22 days, but no one tried to catch a piece in their mouth this time. There was no GoPro strapped to anybody’s chest. There was no goofy antics at postgame press conference.
There were only red, bloodshot eyes on the dais and frustrated tones in the locker room.
“The amount of confidence we had, the belief that we had to pull this off this year and win this,” said sophomore Nigel Hayes, “and to be as close as we are, is kind of still hard now to actually see that we’re still not on the court celebrating.”
With only eight scholarship players, Duke (35-4) won its fifth national championship under head coach Mike Krzyzewski, as the Blue Devils got a combined 60 points on 20 of 39 shooting from Tyus Jones (23), Grayson Allen (16), Justise Winslow (11) and Jahlil Okafor (10).
Wisconsin’s four seniors couldn’t counter, as the quartet managed 28 points on 10 of 27. Twenty-three of those points came from Frank Kaminsky on a night where Wisconsin (36-4) shot 41 percent from the field and scored its fewest points since its 53 points to the loss at Maryland Feb.24.
“These guys have taken us on a phenomenal ride, something that hasn’t been done here in a long, long time” said associate head coach Greg Gard. “This stings and how it came about really stings.”
The longest gap between title appearances in NCAA history didn’t end with the Wisconsin storybook ending that a raucous Badgers fan base – which showed up by the tens of thousands to create a sea of red at Lucas Oil Stadium – had dreamed and hoped for, especially after a tense first half that had 13 lead changes and three ties.
So when Wisconsin went up nine with 13:25 to go, the party atmosphere started to go in full swing, especially with how the Badgers had been shutting the door.
During their eight postseason games, the Badgers shot 63.8 percent (30-for-47) in the final five minutes, including 11-for-15 from the 3-point line and 54-for-67 from the free throw line. In its 71-64 victory over Kentucky, the Badgers’ defense held the Wildcats to 1 of 8 from the field with two turnovers and three shot clock violations in the final 6:36.
Even when the lead had been cut to 58-56 with 4:25 left, the Badgers were still in their element.
Unfortunately so was Jones. Killing the Badgers with 22 points on 7-for-11 shooting four months earlier, Jones scored 19 of his game-high 23 points in the second half and eight of Duke’s final 12 points over the last 4:08.
“He’s a great player,” said Koenig of Jones, who was named the most outstanding player. “He’s clutch. He proved it all year. It’s just hard to guard.”
When asked why, Koenig was blunt.
“You know why,” he said. “You know why. It’s a joke.”
After being called for two fouls in the first half, Wisconsin was whistled for 13 in the second (they average a NCAA-best 12.5 a game), putting Duke in the bonus for the final 11:43 and the double bonus for the final 7:29. The Blue Devils committed 13 fouls, but UW attempted only three free throws in the second half.
“These guys played 30-some games that way,” said UW coach Bo Ryan, referring to their discipline. “It’s just unfortunate that this one had to be played out that way.”
But while some players pointed the finger at the officials, others pointed directly at the fact that they lost their killer finishing touch.
The Blue Devils shot 66.7 percent (4-for-6) over the final stretch, which included an offensive rebound and no turnovers. After junior Sam Dekker’s jumper put the Badgers up 58-56, Wisconsin missed seven of its last nine shots and attempted no free throws.
“We came against a team that was more of a force that was stronger than ours,” said senior Traevon Jackson (2 points, 1 of 7 shooting). “It has nothing to do with the physical parts of the game. They were able to come together more as one. They made plays when they needed to. You could just see it on the expressions of their faces.”
The look for Wisconsin was the complete opposite.
“Just sloppy play,” said Dekker, who finished with 12 points on 6 of 15 shooting and had to fight back tears. “We didn’t play our basketball. That’s what caused us to lose.”
UW had spent the previous 48 hours telling the media that the Dec.3 Duke victory was ages ago and both teams were completely different. They were right, but the Blue Devils still equaled their first meeting total of 32 points in the paint.
“We still felt like we were doing what we’re supposed to be doing,” said Hayes. “What coach preaches to us, chest up, slide our feet, staying on the ground, the calls weren’t going our way. We don’t want to blame any of that. We just didn’t play a good enough 40 minutes to win.”
The first half didn’t go as scripted for Wisconsin, which was outplayed in stretches and let the Blue Devils shoot 50 percent from the field. Yet, the Badgers headed to the locker room tied after ending the half making 6 of 12 shots and turning eight offensive rebounds into 11 second-chance points.
It was a big help to gloss over the four missed free throws, multiple missed layups and lack of early flow. It was setting up for another second half surge that would have been for the ages. It instead turned to heartbreak for a lifetime.
“You get so used to winning,” said Dekker. “It’s ripped from you like that, it hurts.”