INDIANAPOLIS — After the many nights and the multiple thickets Kentucky had weathered on its way to becoming a historic college basketball team, it finally came across this one basic play: A 6-foot-9 junior from Sheboygan, playing for Wisconsin, had some space and backed up a notch above the key.
About 100 seconds remained in a sterling national semifinal at Lucas Oil Stadium. Sam Dekker already had helped elevate Wisconsin and its national player of the year, Frank Kaminsky, toward Indianapolis, with his eight 3-point shots and 27 points in a West Region final against Arizona.
Now he would do something with exponentially more relevance and spotlight. Calmly, as if in the backyard, except with a huge stadium and an entire sport watching nervously, he would swish a 3-point shot for a 3-point lead that would put the Badgers ahead for good. Soon, both Dekker and Kaminsky would be pumping fists toward the Wisconsin crowd. Soon, Wisconsin would achieve the 71-64 toppling that would render Kentucky the most melancholy 38-1 team ever.
Soon, it would be Wisconsin that would venture to a national championship game that long seemed almost reserved for a great Kentucky team. Wisconsin, which lost so heartbreakingly to Kentucky, 74-73, in the 2014 Final Four, would take its 36-3 record, its rarefied confidence and its sense of belonging opposite Duke. Wisconsin, which eyeballed Kentucky from afar all season, would fill the mid-court with happy red on its rush to celebrate.
“Our team knows how to play,” Kaminsky said.
Kentucky would go home as a team that saw the vista from the heights. Through the late autumn and the entire winter and the early spring, it had romped through much of the season and fended off all of the challenges on its way to 38-0. It had become the first team in 24 years to arrive at the Final Four unbeaten. “They took us all on a ride: our staff, our school, our state,” a philosophical Coach John Calipari said after that ride ended.
When the Wildcats led, 60-56, with 6 minutes 36 seconds remaining, after overcoming deficits of nine points in the first half and eight in the second, it appeared they would become the first team since Indiana State in 1979 to arrive at the final Monday night still unbeaten. “We were not sitting in an envious position,” said Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan, bound for his first Division I championship game at age 67.
Instead, the Wildcats who seemingly couldn’t lose, dispensed a sequence of plays that will haunt their devoted fans for decades. They came down the court three straight times, had their offense go unsure, committed three straight shot-clock violations. “We stopped them three times where they couldn’t get a shot off, and that’s no coincidence,” Wisconsin’s Traevon Jackson said.
From the 6:36 mark to the 0:56 mark, Kentucky’s score remained stuck on 60. “They crowded us a little bit, and the guys got a little tentative,” Calipari said. The team that had weathered every bit of a nine-point deficit at Georgia, overtime games against Ole Miss and Texas A&M, a final shot at LSU and a scary Midwest Region final against Notre Dame, could not hold its final two-possession lead.
“Despite all the good stuff that we did, we came up short like this and it’s what you’re going to remembered for the rest of your life,” Kentucky’s 7-foot junior Willie Cauley-Stein said in Kentucky’s hushed locker room. Asked if that were “cruel,” he said, “Yeah, but it’s reality.”
By the time Dekker and then Nigel Hayes had driven for high-percentage shots that tied the score, and Kentucky’s Andrew Harrison had missed on yet another foiled drive, Dekker found himself in that space behind the 3-point line. When his shot swished beautifully, the roar from the Wisconsin fans came ferociously.
Meanwhile, the team that made so many runs to get to 38-0 ended its 39th and final game with a 15-4 run against it. Only Aaron Harrison’s 3-point play with 56 seconds left, a reminder that he and twin Andrew had been dominant in stretches as they combined for 25 points — lent any Kentuckian hope. It pulled Kentucky within 64-63.
Through the final minute, then, Wisconsin kept marching to the foul line, where Kaminsky stepped with 24.5 seconds left. He and his hustling team had out-rebounded Kentucky’s giants 34-22. As he stood there, all seven feet of him, he looked like the player of the year. He looked like he belonged with Dekker et al at the season’s dramatic final stage.
Calmly yet again, he sank both free throws. Calmly, Wisconsin had forged a win bound to be indelible on both sides.