LOS ANGELES—The teams were the same, the round was the same, the region was the same, the next opponent turned out to be the same. Sam Dekker was different.
Behind the junior forward’s 27 points on an absurdly low 11 shots, top-seeded Wisconsin advanced past 2-seed Arizona with an 85-78 win and booked a road trip to its second straight Final Four for the first time in program history.
Dekker scored 11 points in the final four minutes, capping off a dream night with a ridiculous off-balance 3-pointer to push the Badgers up eight and seal the win. There’s no other way to describe it, he was clutch. In the last two games, Dekker has set his career high in points twice.
“It felt good off the hand,” Dekker said after the game. “[Senior guard Traevon Jackson] was standing right behind me and yelled ‘Buckets!’ because he saw I had a good line. I was confident it went down.”
Of course, it’s not like last year’s star against Arizona, Frank Kaminsky, didn’t show up. The senior forward actually outscored Dekker in the game with 29 points, but on nine more shots. It looked like the Wooden Award favorite would take another ride in Wisconsin’s driver seat against Arizona when his primary defender, junior forward Brandon Ashley, picked up two fouls to begin the game. By the time Ashley returned, Kaminsky had seven of UW’s 12 points.
“That was big. We talked through the preparation that anytime you can get a team in foul trouble, it helps,” UW assistant coach Greg Gard said. ”To get off to a good start was big and the fouls were a huge part of it.”
Ashley sparked an Arizona run however, and the Wildcats entered halftime with a 33-30 lead. All postseason, the Badgers have brought the pain in the second half after a lethargical first period. Yet, Arizona was clearly a different animal than North Carolina or Michigan State.
The Wildcats were widely considered a team on the level of a 1-seed. They won both the Pac-12 regular season and tournament championships. They were playing in front of an exuberant, Arizona-heavy crowd. And they wanted revenge.
“We tried the best we could to hedge every on-ball screen that happened with Kaminsky,” Arizona head coach Sean Miller said. “We did an excellent job, in my opinion, of that. That's one of the reasons that our defense was organized and we were good at the half. Rondae did a really good job in the first half when he was on Kaminsky, but he's not going to be able to just pitch a shutout.”
“The problem was he can't guard two people. When Sam Dekker does what he did, and I think some of the shots were very well defended, when he does that with Kaminsky, maybe Kentucky is that school that can beat them. But I'm telling you, I don't know if there is another one out there when they're clicking with that one-two punch.”
The Badgers most certainly started clicking in the second half. In their first six possessions, they scored 14 points. Arizona was eventually able to punch back, but not before UW had built up a 44-36 lead three minutes into the second half. When the half was over, Wisconsin had scored 1.64 points per possession and shot 78.9 percent.
“I can remember getting hot the last five minutes, hitting like your last seven shots, 10 free throws in a row. I can remember some of those,” head coach Bo Ryan said. “But this one I'm going to enjoy quite a bit because Arizona gave us everything they had. And I'm sure Sean is looking at that and going, Come on, how many times is that going to happen?”
Bo makes the final cut before the Final Four. pic.twitter.com/I9InspQPka— DailyCardinal Sports (@Cardinal_Sports) March 29, 2015
Once UW was in command, Arizona was primed for a run that kept getting cut short. Either Dekker aced another heat-check, or a Wildcat picked up another costly foul. As fun a game it was for Wisconsin fans, there was a certified ref-takeover that Ashley’s early fouls hinted at.
Both teams combined for 43 fouls, with 61 free throws taken in the game. Arizona had two star wings, sophomore Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and freshman Stanley Johnson, foul out, with five more players on either side reaching four fouls. UW’s 21 fouls broke their season high of 18 against both Oklahoma and North Carolina.
Eventually through the slog however, Dekker shined through.
“This game solidified his Wisconsin legacy,” Jackson said. ”It was great to see Sam. I’m really proud of him.”
“This tournament, he's really shown his full arsenal offensively and defensively,” redshirt senior guard Josh Gasser said. “So it was almost get him the ball because you could tell he wanted it. When he's confident like that making plays, being aggressive, this is the stuff that happens.”
“The biggest development for Sam has been from the neck up,” Gard said. “He’s matured. You look at what he did today, he’s always had that type of talent but it was a matter of him understanding the importance of all the other little things.”
Undefeated Kentucky awaits. The Wildcats from Lexington are better than last year. But if Dekker plays like he did Saturday, like the matchup nightmare NBA-talent, Wisconsin will be better too. And maybe their attempt at revenge will be a little more successful than Arizona’s.
Wisconsin has reached its goal. Kaminsky and Dekker and everyone else are back and the Final Four is here. Win or lose, this team’s going down as one of, if not the best, in program history. Win though, and Madison is going to lose its mind.