ANAHEIM, Calif. -- After a 69-52 win over sixth-seeded Baylor in Thursday's NCAA West regional semifinals, Wisconsin is headed to the Elite 8 for the first time since 2005 and for just the second time under head coach Bo Ryan.
As they have for much of the season season, the Badgers (28-7) proved several prognostications wrong, dominating the Bears (26-11) from the opening tip by using the size and athleticism of junior forward Frank Kaminsky decimate the Baylor zone and open up UW shooters on the perimeter.
"You have to touch the middle," junior guard Josh Gasser said about the Badgers' approach against Baylor's zone defense. "You cannot be stagnant or just rely on the outside shot, even though that is what zones give you."
Wisconsin was able to get the ball in the middle by emphasizing high post touches for Kaminsky and sophomore forward Sam Dekker.
"That was one of our points on the scouting report," Kaminsky said. "They left the middle of the zone open a little bit and we were able to get the ball in there and get some easy baskets to the rim, some easy kick-outs for threes.
Best Celebration Ever
Best Celebration Ever
Although Baylor scored first, the Badgers responded with a quick 8-0 run that gave them the lead and put them in control of the game for good. Many thought Baylor's length and athletic bigs would pose a challenge to a Wisconsin squad that typically struggles against the zone. Yet in a departure from previous postseason performances, UW made an immediate effort to penetrate the zone and get the ball to Kaminsky, who made his presence known quickly with six points in the first five minutes. The Lisle, Ill., native finished with a game-high 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting, supplementing that with three assists, four rebounds and six blocks, the second-most in Wisconsin NCAA tournament history.
"He is just a great player," Baylor senior forward Cory Jefferson said. "Offensively, he has a good skillset, a 7-footer that can shoot it."
"He was really aggressive," Badger junior forward Duje Dukan said of Kaminsky. "He set the tone on the floor, which is something we really wanted to do."
While Baylor certainly had the firepower to make a run at Wisconsin's lead, that run never materialized. Wisconsin's advantage increased to double-digits, 18-8, on a baseline jumper from Dukan less than 11 minutes into the game and never dropped below seven points the rest of the way. After senior guard Ben Brust hit the first of his three three-pointers, giving the Badgers a 21-11 lead with 5:38 left in the first half, Baylor never again cut the deficit to single digits.
"For us, a quick start would be good," UW head coach Bo Ryan said. "[But] I'd like to start fast, be really fast in the middle, and end fast. That would be really good."
The Badgers dominated both ends of the floor and held Baylor to a season-low 16 points in the first half, tying a season low by allowing just 52 points in total. The fourth time Wisconsin was able to hold its opponent under 20 points in the first half came at a big time, especially considering Baylor had only trailed for 7:24 of 240 postseason minutes prior to Thursday.
"I thought we did a great job of limiting them to one shot," junior guard Traevon Jackson said. "We combatted their length and we combatted what they wanted to do."
Baylor shot just under 21 percent from the field in the first half and finished just over 31 percent for the game. The Bears made just two of 15 from three-point range, with senior Brady Heslip finishing just 1-of-6 from the field and 1-of-4 from three despite entering the game making over 46 percent of his shots from long range. The Badgers benefitted from being able to mark Heslip with Brust, a sharpshooter himself.
"He and Brady are essentially the same kid," Gasser said of Brust's matchup with Heslip. "I think that was a pretty good matchup for [Brust] because he knows what makes a three-point shooter uncomfortable."
The early Wisconsin lead was built without the benefit of many outside jump shots as the Badgers continued to feed the high post and get interior looks. UW finished with 36 points in the paint and the duo of Kaminsky and freshman forward Nigel Hayes combining for 29 points on 13-of-20 shooting.
"I think [Kaminsky] knew from watching the film and going over the scouting report that he and Nigel, Sam and Duje were going to be extremely important in that zone," Ryan said. "And Frank set the tone."
Baylor struggled to defend Wisconsin throughout the game, switching out of its typical zone late in the first half only to start the second half back in it. After UW started the half on a 5-2 run with baskets from Kaminsky and sophomore forward Sam Dekker, Baylor head coach Scott Drew was forced to call timeout and yet again abandon the zone in favor of a man defense.
"We thought they would stick with [the zone defense] for a while," Dukan said. "It actually surprised us that they went to a man [defense]."
Despite the dominant performance, the Badgers are far from satisfied, knowing they still have gaps to fill as they move forward in the NCAA tournament. Wisconsin finished just 11-of-20 from the free-throw line and committed 10 turnovers after coming into the game averaging just 7.5 per game in the tournament.
"We can't get complacent," Gasser said. "We are going to have to play better than we did tonight if we want to advance to Texas."
The one thing missing in Bo Ryan's resume is a Final Four appearance. For the first time since 2005, his Badgers are just 40 minutes away from adding that final piece.