Some unlikely players stepped up to help the Wisconsin Badgers beat the North Carolina Tar Heels in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.
LOS ANGELES—The only thing Frank Kaminsky wasn’t happy about as he walked down the long Staples Center hallway to the postgame interview room on Thursday night was that he wasn’t allowed to go barefoot. It wasn’t exactly clear why that was prohibited—whether it was in keeping with some arcane NCAA rule or just concern with good hygiene—but Kaminsky grudgingly slipped on a pair of sneakers before he left the Wisconsin locker room. “I don’t want to wear shoes,” he said. “My feet hurt.”
His size 18s weren’t the only things that caused Kaminsky pain on Thursday night. His right eye was reddened and sore from an inadvertent smack in the face from North Carolina’s Isaiah Hicks that briefly knocked him out of the game with 11:11 remaining, and his ego was no doubt a little bruised when he was mostly ineffective (scoring just four points on 2 for 7 shooting) in the first half of Wisconsin’s 79-72 victory over the Tar Heels. The win sent the Badgers, the top seed in the West Regional, to the Elite Eight. For most of the second half there was also blood on the back of Kaminsky’s shorts which might not have been his, but either way, the Badgers’ 7-foot star emerged from the game looking battered.
But he also emerged victorious, partly because teammate Sam Dekker picked up the scoring slack with 23 points, and partly because the Badgers, as guard Josh Gasser said, “aren’t defined by one player.” Wisconsin has always been greater than the sum of its parts, and it seems more like a tribute than a slight when this team is portrayed as Kaminsky, Dekker and a bunch of other guys. Even North Carolina coach Roy Williams fell into that trap a bit after the game when he was referring to a late, crucial Gasser three pointer that put the Badgers up by four. “I’m not sure I’m pronouncing his name properly,” Williams said. “Is it Gasser?”
Pronounced GAH-sir, the senior may be unheralded, but at least he is a four-year starter. Winners like Wisconsin, though, often get contributions from unlikely places, and such was the case on Thursday. Zak Showalter, a 6'2" guard, provided perhaps the most unexpected boost with three buckets, including a steal and coast-to-coast layup, during a two-minute stretch that wiped out a 57-54 North Carolina edge and gave the Badgers a 65-60 lead, which they would not relinquish.
Showalter, a former walk-on from Germantown, Wis., was a little used reserve as a freshman and redshirted last season before earning a scholarship and playing about seven minutes per game this season. None of that made him a prime candidate to make such important plays at such an important time for Wisconsin. “Coach (Bo) Ryan always says, when you come in the game, add something,” Showalter said. “Whether it’s defense, rebounding, setting screens, providing energy, just add something.”
Showalter did that by scoring a layup to start that 11-3 run, then assisting on a Kaminsky three-pointer—his only such attempt of the night—that cut the Tar Heels lead to one at 60-59, then scoring the go-ahead layup on a backdoor pass from Gasser and, finally, stealing the ball from UNC's Nate Britt near midcourt and taking it in for another bucket. “I gambled a little because I was tired,” he admitted. “I was like, 'Oh, there’s nobody in front of me, I guess I have to take it myself.' I think you guys could see I was a little gassed.”
If Showalter felt that way after playing eight minutes, imagine how Kaminsky felt after playing 39. North Carolina was mostly successful in bottling up the Wooden Award favorite, especially in the first half, but he also had good shots that simply didn’t fall, including a missed reverse layup on Wisconsin’s first possession that Kaminsky usually makes easily. He looked somewhat flustered at times in the first half, passing up a couple of jumpers and complaining to the refs. Believers in body language would have read bad things in Kaminsky’s, but he insisted that his rough first 20 minutes didn’t bother him.
"I just don’t get frustrated," he said. "Sam had a great first half and kept us in the game, and I knew in the second half that I had to just concentrate on opening things up for my teammates." Kaminsky was so patient and unselfish that he took only four shots in the second half, though he calmly swished four free throws in the final two minutes to finish with 19 points and help put the game away.
"The thing about Frank is that he is a star, but he doesn’t feel pressure to constantly prove he’s a star,” said forward Nigel Hayes. “He didn’t come in at halftime mad at himself and tearing things up or anything. He trusts his teammates to do their jobs if he’s a little off or if defenses are just concentrating on him. Even with all his accolades, he understands that we’re a team, not a one-man show.”
Still, when Kaminsky was flattened by Hicks’ blow in the second half, the Badgers weren’t exactly thrilled to see their All-America lying on the hardwood. Asked if seeing Kaminsky knocked temporarily out of the game fired the team up, guard Duje Dukan said, “To tell you the truth is was more like nervousness, like ‘What’s going on?’”
But Kaminsky eventually regained his equilibrium and finished the job, and so did the Badgers. Fourth-seeded North Carolina clearly came closer to playing its best game than Wisconsin did. The Tar Heels, who made just 35.1% of their three-pointers entering the night and averaged 12.9 turnovers per game, shot 8 for 13 beyond the arc and turned it over only four times, but the Badgers’ defense tightened up down the stretch and held off the Heels.
Playing less than their best won’t get the Badgers to Indianapolis, nor will it serve them well if they do get there. First they'll have to get by Arizona in a rematch of last year's West Regional overtime thriller won by Wisconsin by a single point, and then would come a probable national semifinal rematch with Kentucky. The undefeated Wildcats would have made short work of Thursday night’s Badgers, which is why Wisconsin’s mood seemed to be more relief than satisfaction. “We’re going to enjoy this win for about 32 seconds,” Hayes said, “and then, back to work.”