OMAHA, Neb.—Locked in an intense NCAA Tournament battle with the Oregon Ducks for a second consecutive year, the Wisconsin Badgers desperately needed someone to deliver a huge second-half performance to keep their dreams of a national title alive.
Junior forward Sam Dekker turned out to be just the man for the job.
Dekker scored 14 of his 17 points in the second half to help No. 1-seeded Wisconsin (33-3) survive a major scare from No. 8-seed Oregon (26-10) and hold on for a 72-65 victory in the third round of the NCAA Tournament Sunday night.
Senior forward Frank Kaminsky scored 16 points, sophomore forward Nigel Hayes finished with 14 and sophomore guard Bronson Koenig added 12 to help UW reach the Sweet Sixteen for the fourth time in the last five years, joining Michigan State, Louisville and Kentucky as the only programs to accomplish that feat.
After going just 1-of-4 from the field in the first half, Dekker came alive in the second, shooting 5-for-8 over the last 20 minutes and hitting several key shots at critical junctures in the game.
“The first half I wasn’t playing up to my capabilities. I got kind of out of sync and started trying to force some stuff,” Dekker said. “When I’m myself, I can do some good things, so I just let the game come to me and just put up shots with confidence and tried to be a little more aggressive.”
His effort helped the Badgers overcome a sensational performance from Oregon redshirt senior guard Joseph Young, the reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year. After missing his first five shots in the game, Young found his shooting stroke and went off for 30 points in what turned out to be the final game of his collegiate career.
“[Young’s] a great player. He will be special at the next level,” Koenig said. “Luckily, he missed some shots and we forced them to take tough shots.”
Unfortunately for Young, senior guard Jalil Abdul-Bassit was the only other Oregon player to reach double figures (he finished with 12 points), and he didn’t hit that mark until he made a 3-pointer in the closing seconds of the game with the outcome already determined.
“We know Joe Young, no matter what you do against him, he’s still going to score 20,” redshirt senior guard Josh Gasser said. “So what we wanted to do was hold him somewhat in check, not let him go off for 50 or anything, and then make sure everyone else doesn’t have a good game.”
The Badgers were able to capitalize on Young’s struggles early in the game, building a 20-9 lead midway through the first half. But once he came alive, the Ducks rallied, using a 19-11 run to cut the UW lead to 31-28 heading into the locker room.
This trend continued in the second half, as the Badgers were unable to pull away from Oregon, who seemed to have an answer for every Wisconsin basket.
However, the Badgers did get a major boost off the bench from sophomore forward Zak Showalter, who drilled a 3-pointer and made a layup on consecutive possessions. Coming into the game, Showalter had gone just 1-of-12 from 3-point range this season.
Though they never led during the game, the Ducks tied the game at 52-52 with under six minutes to play and looked poised to pull off the upset. But back-to-back steals shortly after by Kaminsky and Gasser led to a quick five points and gave the Badgers some breathing room.
Wisconsin sealed the deal with under a minute to go, when Kaminsky grabbed an offensive rebound off a missed free throw and made the putback to push the UW lead to 10. The normally reserved Kaminsky celebrated by flexing to the crowd, knowing the Badgers were going to escape the CenturyLink Center with a win on a night where they weren’t at their best.
Despite its size advantage, Wisconsin was outrebounded 34-32 and outscored in the paint by a 30-24 margin, yet the Badgers overcame all of that to move on from Omaha, Neb. to Los Angeles, where they’ll take on No. 4-seed North Carolina next Thursday at 6:47 p.m.
Sunday’s intense victory came on the heels of a Friday night win over Coastal Carolina in the Round of 64. In that game, Kaminsky scored 27 points on 10-of-14 shooting and Dekker added 20 points of his own in the Badgers’ 86-72 triumph.
“These guys definitely have had the kind of season where they’ve earned every inch of this. Hopefully we can go out to LA and get something done,” UW head coach Bo Ryan said following Sunday’s win. “I’m proud of these guys. That was a tough game. Pretty physical, some things got away from us, but we were able to corral all our talents and get it done.”