ANAHEIM, Calif. -- For years, Butch Ryan was a fixture at the Final Four, an event his son Bo had never been able to participate in as a head coach. Saturday night, on what would have been Butch's 90th birthday, Bo's Badgers made sure the Ryan family would be represented in North Texas, knocking off top-seeded Arizona 64-63 in overtime to take home the NCAA West Regional title and a spot in the Final Four for the first time since 2000.
After cruising to victory over Baylor in the Sweet 16, Wisconsin (30-7) had to work much harder for this one. Arizona (33-5) came out with a stifling defensive effort that forced UW into difficult shots and an eight-point deficit after 12 minutes of play. But despite a few close calls going the way of the Wildcats, not to mention several good looks failing to fall on the offensive end of the floor, Wisconsin was able to close the half on a 5-0 run over the final 2:54 and head into the locker room down just three, very much in the game.
"We have been in positions like that before," junior guard Josh Gasser said. "It was great to claw back in it, and mentally, feel like we were in the game at half. Against a team like Arizona, you can't get into too big of a hole."
From that point forward, Wisconsin relied on Frank Kaminsky to take the Badgers to the promised land. Kaminsky dominated in all facets of the offensive game for the game's final 25 minutes. After matching the eight-point effort of Arizona sophomore Kaleb Tarczewski in the first half, the Lisle, Ill., native blitzed the Wildcats for 20 more, finishing with a game-high 28 points on 11-of-20 shooting, enough to be named the most valuable player of the West Region.
"I just wanted to do anything I could to make sure that we won that game," Kaminsky said. "I know every person on our team wanted it really bad and we all wanted to do it for each other. So I was able to chip in my part, but it was a team effort out there tonight."
Kaminsky's breakout performance opened the door for several of his teammates to come up with big plays when it mattered most. Junior guard Traevon Jackson, who finished with 10 points on 4-of-14 shooting, used a clear-out by the 7-foot Badger forward to finish a drive to the basket with 1:08 left that gave UW a 54-52 lead. After the Wildcats were able to force overtime, Kaminsky's post touch on the second possession of overtime opened up the perimeter and allowed senior guard Ben Brust to hit his only three-point shot of the night.
"When we have a guy like Frank who is just such a dual threat," Brust said,"it really helps open up things for all of us."
In a game pitting two true heavyweights of the college game, it was Kaminsky dealing most of the blows for UW. Four times Kaminsky hit field goals to either tie the game or give Wisconsin a lead, and in the overtime, he accounted for six of the Badgers' 10 points.
"We tried a little something different, a little wrinkle we put in to go under the ball screens on the point guard, so Kaleb [Tarczewski] and Aaron [Gordon] wouldn't have to help as much," Arizona junior guard Nick Johnson said. "But I mean, he's a great player. He made shots. He made big-time shots tonight."
Arizona was in control for much of this game, save a few spurts from the resilient Badgers. The Wildcats scored first just over two minutes into the game, started on a 5-0 run and led the rest of the first half. It wasn't until Kaminsky hit the second of his three three-point field goals with 16:01 left in the game that Wisconsin was able to catch Arizona, knotting the game at 34.
"We know we have 40 minutes of basketball," senior forward Zach Bohannon said. "As long as we stay and do our best every single possession, we know we have a chance at the end."
After building a five-point lead on the strength of two key jumpers from freshman guard Bronson Koenig, it looked like UW might run out of gas down the stretch. Keyed by a three-point jumper from junior guard TJ McConnell and a spurt of three straight field goals by Johnson, Arizona responded with a 12-4 run to take a 48-45 lead with 5:25 left.
Wisconsin sophomore forward Sam Dekker stemmed the tide with a layup before Kaminsky was spot-on with another three-pointer, giving the Badgers a 50-48 lead and erasing what would be the Wildcats' final lead of the game.
Although UW never trailed in the overtime, Badger fans had no chance to catch their breath until the final buzzer sounded. After a tip-in by Kaminsky put Wisconsin up 64-61 with 1:08 left, Arizona benefitted from a fortunate air ball by Johnson as senior guard Jordin Mayes was right under the basket for the finish, cutting the lead to one.
After Jackson missed a tough lay-up at the other end, Wisconsin forced a miss by McConnell but was unable to corral the rebound. On the ensuing possession, with the Wildcats out of timeouts, Gasser squared up and drew an offensive foul on a driving Johnson, giving the Badgers possession with a one-point lead and 3.2 seconds left.
"Josh Gasser is tough as nails," Brust said. "I knew coming into this game that he was going to be a big part of this win, whether he scored or didn't score. I knew he was going to contribute to helping us get this victory and that charge at the end really helped."
But even after what seemed like the game-saving play, Wisconsin had to dodge a final bullet after replay gave Arizona the ball with 2.3 seconds left, the officials ruling the ensuing inbound pass had been last touched by Jackson before going out of bounds near the Arizona bench.
After a long delay, the Badgers settled in and forced Johnson into one too many dribbles, his final heave at the basket coming a split-second after the final horn had sounded.
"We knew [Johnson] was probably going to get the ball in his hands and try to make a play," Gasser said. "We just tried to make it as tough as possible on him. He's a tremendous player. He's been doing it all year long. He's a really fun player to guard. It was a good battle out there, and fortunately, he didn't make a play there."
Although the celebration is on in full force back in Madison, the Badgers are far from finished and far from happy with a Final Four appearance.
"This is special, it's stuff you dream about growing up," Brust said. "But the best part is that we are not satisfied. We have a chance to keep going and I know we are going to do that."
Wisconsin hasn't been to a Final Four since 2000, and it hasn't won a national title since 1941. With two more wins in North Texas, the 73-year drought will come to an end. The way this Badger team is playing right now, that is by no means a far-fetched possibility.
"We've got 40 more," Dekker said. "That's the type of guy [Ryan] is. The jerseys say ‘next' on the back for a reason. He's always looking forward."