Saturday’s matchup between Wisconsin and Arizona was so highly anticipated that many wished it could have taken place in the Final Four instead of the Elite Eight. Not only did it feature two of the top three teams in the country according to kenpom.com's efficiency rankings, it was also a rematch of last year’s thrilling meeting in the same round and the first regional final rematch since 1973-74. And for the second year in a row, the Badgers beat the Wildcats for a spot in the Final Four.
This game amounted to a tantalizing matchup of strengths: Wisconsin’s offense, which ranks first in the nation in adjusted efficiency, against Arizona’s third-ranked adjusted efficiency defense. In the end, the Wildcats could not do enough to slow the Badgers’ high-octane attack. Wisconsin shot 55.6% from the field, 66.7% from three-point range and registered 1.36 points per possession in its 85-78 win.
A potent combination of ball movement and shooting helped the Badgers take control early in the game. National player of the year frontrunner Frank Kaminsky scored five points and was fouled twice by Arizona junior forward Brandon Ashley within the first two minutes. The Wildcats removed Ashley and inserted junior shooting guard Gabe York, a switch that created mismatches elsewhere on the floor. A three from senior guard Josh Gasser at the 16:13 mark gave Wisconsin an eight-point lead and prompted Arizona coach Sean Miller to call timeout.
Ashley atoned for his poor defense by helping Arizona narrow the deficit later in the half. He scored six consecutive points between the 11-minute mark and nine-minute mark to tie the game at 14. That scoring spurt preceded a frenzied, three-and-a-half minute stretch in which the two teams combined to score 14 points, including a powerful, two-handed dunk from Arizona’s Kaleb Tarczewski on Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky. A few possessions later, Kaminsky blatantly flopped while guarding Tarczewski in the post.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson helped Arizona enter the break with a three-point lead by playing strong defense on Kaminsky and scoring six points.
Wisconsin quickly regained control in the second half, as Kaminsky scored eight points over the first three minutes to give the Badgers a seven-point lead and forced Tarczewski and Hollis-Jefferson to pick up their third fouls. Meanwhile, Arizona’s leading scorer, freshman wing Stanley Johnson, had to visit the locker room after being scratched on the eye, Rachel Nichols reported on the TBS broadcast. Johnson was reinserted into the game a few minutes later.
His return didn’t prevent Wisconsin from extending its lead. Junior forward Sam Dekker knocked down a pair of three-point shots over a three-possession span and, after Hollis-Jefferson converted a tip in, the Badgers ripped off seven unanswered points, including a three from sophomore forward Nigel Hayes. Arizona remained within striking distance throughout the rest of the half, but it struggled to make up ground because Wisconsin was shooting so well. Still, York gave the Wildcats hope when he knocked down a three at the 2:22 mark to slice Wisconsin’s lead to five points.
About two minutes later, however, Dekker sealed the game by draining a three-point shot over Hollis-Jefferson.
Dekker finished with a career-best 27 points on 8-of-11 shooting, while Kaminsky recorded a game-high 29. For Arizona, Ashley and Hollis-Jefferson each scored 17 points. Wisconsin is back in the Final Four for a second consecutive year and looks poised to challenge either Kentucky or Notre Dame for a place in the national championship game.