ARLINGTON, Texas—Sixty-seven teams walk away from the tournament in heartbreak.
They can lose big and they can lose at the last second. They can lose due to a lack of execution and they can lose because the other team has the game of its life.
It will hurt, but that’s just college basketball. We trade a very-likely eventual defeat for the thrill of a 68-team single-elimination tournament.
This was the lesson for the Badgers (30-8 overall) as their season came to an end on a deep, final-seconds 3-pointer from Kentucky freshman guard Aaron Harrison that denied them a chance to play for the national championship. The thriller ended with a score of 74-73.
“When it comes down to a one-possession game, the last possession has always seemed so magnified,” said head coach Bo Ryan. “But there were 60, 70, 80 possessions in there and a lot of those ended up being the possessions that were more crucial. We just came up one short.”
The Badgers fell in front of an NCAA Final Four record crowd of 79,444 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Kentucky’s athleticism gave the Badgers a challenge that by no means overwhelmed them, but they still were unable to sufficiently counter. The Wildcats finished with 46 points in the paint, 23 second-chance points and highlight dunk after highlight dunk.
“We just did not make enough plays on the inside. [Kentucky] was able to get things that we were not giving up this entire tournament,” said junior forward Frank Kaminsky. “We would have to have set the tone physically more, but we didn’t and they came out on top.”
Adding on to that, Kentucky had only four turnovers, which was a season low, and zero in the second half.
The Badgers came into the matchup carrying the banner of strong fundamentals: outside shooting, disciplined play and they also showed up with their usually low eight turnovers and 8-of-20 3-point shooting.
Kentucky’s banner held ludicrous offensive-rebounding totals, which Wisconsin did an OK job of limiting by rebounding 21 of Kentucky’s 32 misses. To compare, Michigan only rebounded 10 of Kentucky’s 27 misses in the Elite Eight.
“You can look at so much film, and you can watch them, but the amount of force they come with and how aggressive they are to the glass, you really can’t emulate that in any other way until you experience it,” said redshirt junior forward Duje Dukan. “We talked about it as one thing that we needed to address.”
Wisconsin saw great performances from pretty much all its players. Freshman guard Bronson Koenig and Dukan both made shots that drove key Wisconsin runs. Six different players pulled down four or five rebounds. The team collectively made 19-of-20 free throws.
The one miss came from junior guard Traevon Jackson, who was fouled on a 3-point attempt and missed one of three free throws, which left the door open for a go-ahead 3-point shot from UK.
And that very shot came in the form of what will likely go down as the most infamous shot in Wisconsin basketball history, one that flew out of the hands of Harrison.
“He was pretty deep out there. He hadn’t really looked to pull up [for a shot] the entire game,” said redshirt junior guard Josh Gasser. “I saw him start to rise up, and I tried to contest the best I could. I thought I did a good job, but he made another good shot.”
Wisconsin had a chance to respond, but the attempt to save the season from Jackson fell short and the Badgers' run was finished.
“I think I got hit on my arm, but I thought once it was out of my hands it had a chance to go in,” Jackson said. “When I saw it didn’t, it just was a shock more than sadness at that point.
That miss will spell the end of the careers of guard Ben Brust, forward Zach Bohannon and center Evan Anderson. However, that seems to be it for the Badgers’ losses, as Kaminsky and sophomore forward Sam Dekker both told ESPN’s Jeff Goodman that they will return to Wisconsin despite a potential spot in the NBA draft. That means the Badgers will return 82 percent of the scoring of a Final Four team.
“We are going to be back next year. We are going to be better than ever. We will all be ready,” Kaminsky said. “It is going to be a long road to get back to here, but I know we will make it.”
Harrison’s shot is going to be replayed more than anyone outside of Kentucky is going to like. But Badger fans will still have memories of the journey to their first Final Four in 14 years, storming State Street in elation and the joy of watching the best offense of Bo Ryan’s career. That makes it a pretty special season.