LOS ANGELES— No one ever said making the Elite Eight was easy. Well, except maybe Kentucky.
Still, it’s one more win to the Final Four and even more of a season to celebrate for Wisconsin after the top-seeded Badgers (34-3) advanced in the NCAA Tournament over No. 4-seed North Carolina (26-12) in a 79-72 nail biter.
UNC entered the game with a distinct MO: work through their deep, athletic big man rotation, go for fastbreak points whenever possible and hope that star junior guard Marcus Paige has a good shooting night. They got all that and more, as a team with only one player (Paige) who had made more than 30 3-pointers this season made 8-of-13 deep shots. And that’s counting a couple of garbage time misses for the Heels.
The fastbreak in particular gave Wisconsin trouble early, with UNC registering four easy layups in transition. Since the days of Raymond Felton, speeding the game up has been a Roy Williams tradition, and something the slower-paced Badgers had to prepare for.
“It’s amazing, we felt we spent so much time with the scout team running North Carolina’s transition offense,” head coach Bo Ryan said after the game. "There was one problem. The scout team didn’t have Paige, Meeks, James, Tokoto.”
The Tar Heels rode that hot shooting to a 33-31 halftime lead, and it would have been a lot worse if it weren’t for junior forward Sam Dekker’s heroics. Going into the locker room, Dekker had made more baskets than the rest of his team combined, while also leading them in points (15) and rebounds (6).
“Early in the first half, I thought we needed a spark, and I saw some opportunities in the open court to give us a spark,” Dekker said. “They got switched up on a couple screens and they gave me a lane to the bucket. If I use my athleticism the way I should, I tend to be able to get there. So I just tried to stay in attack mode.”
Dekker finished with a career-high 23 points, 10 rebounds and no turnovers.
The other spark for the Badgers in the first half was likely more emotional, as senior guard Traevon Jackson finally made his return to the court after 19 missed games with a broken foot.
The Westerville, Ohio, native checked in to loud applause, found an open pocket of the Tar Heel defense and drained a corner three for his first points in more than two months.
“I was just ‘Thank you, Lord!’ It was sweet,” Jackson said of the shot. “I was excited to be back out there. I knew after the little scramble for the ball, I was like ‘You’re about to get a shot. Shoot it. No hesitation.'"
Jackson’s return couldn’t have come at a better time, as his replacement at point guard, sophomore guard Bronson Koenig, was hampered in the second half by foul trouble, eventually fouling out.
For the first 10 minutes of the second half, it looked like Wisconsin was going to be hampered by more of the same shooting and fastbreaks. Then, the offense came alive, as it did against Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament. And the results were vicious. Down by seven with less than five minutes to go, Wisconsin broke off a 9-0 run in the span of two minutes and took a 65-60 lead it would never relinquish.
The highlight of the night came as redshirt sophomore guard Zak Showalter ripped off a layup, steal and another layup to put the Badgers firmly in command.
“Man, Show was huge!” Jackson exclaimed. “Show was the real deal today. I’m just happy for him. He was aggressive. We need to be aggressive like that as a team, that’s all we need to focus on.”
Although Paige kept it interesting with a couple of contested threes that somehow went in, Wisconsin easily held on and will play No. 2-seed Arizona Saturday. That's a rematch of last year's West Regional final, when the Badgers knocked off the Wildcats in a 64-63 overtime thriller to get to the Final Four.