LOS ANGELES—Traevon Jackson called it.
Jackson, Wisconsin’s often-used go-to option in the clutch, the point guard who has made four game-tying or winning shots in college, had the best view of Sam Dekker’s heave with the shot clock expiring. Wisconsin was up 81-76 with Arizona frantically looking for something to go right when Dekker shot over the outstretched hand of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
“Buckets!” Jackson cried out from the bench. And in it went, the Badgers’ 12th three-pointer of the night, giving them an 84-76 lead with 17 seconds to go. The shot was a dagger right through the heart of UA point guard T.J. McConnell, who shuffled to the sideline eight seconds later and buried his head into his Sean Miller’s arms with tears in his eyes, apologizing to his coach for not taking him to a Final Four.
The regional rematch everyone wanted lived up to its hype Saturday night at the Staples Center with the Badgers reaching the Final Four for the second year in a row on an 85-78 win. But the reasons were different from what everyone expected. This was not the back-and-forth, trading-punches final of last year, when Wisconsin escaped with a 64-63 overtime win. This was offensive efficiency at its finest, a Wisconsin team showing off its shot-making capabilities in the second half, hitting everything from everywhere. The Badgers shot 55.6% for the game overall, and 78.9% in the second half (15 of 19). They were so hot, said Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, they probably should have made those four misses. Who cares that they were playing Arizona, one of the best defensive teams in the country?
“I think they had two threes at the half,” Arizona coach Sean Miller (correctly) said in postgame. “Think about that. Two made threes at the half, they had eight in the second half.”
Try 10, coach.
Yep. It’s O.K. if you didn’t expect it: Coming into Saturday, Wisconsin ranked 111th in three-point percentage.
Six of those treys came from Dekker, including the back-breaker with 17 seconds to go, on which he had two thoughts: One, it looked good when it floated off his hand. And yes, he shot it with that much arc on purpose, because have you seen Hollis-Jefferson’s wingspan? Two, it looked familiar if you’ve watched Dekker before. It was eerily similar to the shot that won Sheboygan Lutheran High its first state championship when Dekker was a senior. Ryan called both buckets “cold-blooded.”
After it dropped through the net, Dekker turned to Ryan and gave him a little wink. Then he stared down an Arizona contingent that had spent all night chanting “Dehhhhh-kker! Dehhhh-kker!”
“Sometimes, I get a little swagger,” he said afterward in a jubilant Wisconsin locker room, a piece of the net tied around his regional champs ball cap.
It was a tremendous three days for Dekker, the regional MVP, who followed up a career-high 23 points against North Carolina in the Sweet 16 Thursday with another career high (27) against Arizona. As the clock wound down Saturday at Staples Center, Wisconsin guard Josh Gasser turned to CBS analyst Reggie Miller, known for hitting a few big shots of his own. “Sam's got stones like you,” Gasser said to Miller, who laughed and nodded. Gasser repeated the anecdote in the press conference afterward, cracking up when Ryan interjected to tell a story about Miller at Wisconsin’s shootaround Saturday morning. When an errant pass landed over by Miller, the former NBA All-Star tossed it inbounds, which caused Ryan to say in mock disbelief, “Guys, I want you to look at this. Reggie Miller is passing the ball.”
All postseason, Wisconsin has looked like it’s having more fun than anyone else. There’s Kaminsky and the GoPro camera strapped to his chest, Nigel Hayes flirting with the stenographer and then, on Friday, Kaminsky strolling over to the ESPN SportsCenter set—it’s located across from Staples—and making a guest appearance on the evening show. “I didn’t even talk to [Ryan] about it,” Kaminsky said. “We're just trying to have as much fun as possible. We're still kids.”
Ryan said he actually did know where Kaminsky was going, and didn’t worry about it.
“I coached a lot of engineers in Division III for 15 years,” Ryan said. “Their sense of humor isn't always the same ... This is a group that—and I said it before, with Frank coming back, it kind of set the tone for everything.
“They know when to get serious.”
Kaminsky got serious by scoring a game-high 29 points, and the entire team will undoubtedly be focused come next week in Indianapolis. Last season, a last-second Aaron Harrison three-pointer kept Wisconsin from reaching its first-ever national championship game under Ryan. On Saturday night, the Badgers prevented Arizona's revenge bid and now get a shot of their own against another group of Wildcats.