ARLINGTON, Texas -- All year, teams playing against Wisconsin's diverse set of offensive weapons knew that if UW needed one basket at the end of the game, the defensive focus turned squarely to Traevon Jackson.
Saturday night, in front of the largest crowd to ever watch a college basketball game, the junior came off a drag screen and caught the in-bounds pass with 5.7 seconds left on the clock. Trailing by one, Jackson worked up the left sideline against Aaron Harrison and got to his go-to move-a pull-up jumper off the dribble-to create a clean look.
Not this time.
The miss off the backboard and rim sealed a crushing 74-73 loss to Kentucky, as UW came up one possession short of a chance to play for the program's first national championship since 1941.
"I thought he knocked it down," sophomore forward Sam Dekker said. "Trae gets into that couple dribble pull-up on his left side, it's always going to go down."
"As I went up in the air I had to adjust, but I still thought it was good coming off of my hand," Jackson said. "I just didn't make it."
Wisconsin trailed by one because Harrison (eight points, 3-of-8 FG) hit a long, contested three on UK's final possession. Jackson and center Frank Kaminsky effectively trapped Andrew Harrison -- Aaron's brother -- under the basket on a drive. He threw a wild pass, which was corralled by freshman center Dakari Johnson, who gave the ball back to Andrew in the corner. He found his brother well behind the three-point line. When Aaron lined it up, UW guard Josh Gasser was right there, but it didn't matter.
"He was pretty deep out there," Gasser said. "He hadn't really looked to pull the entire game. I saw him start to rise up, and I tried to contest the best I could."
The two teams traded blows through most of the second half. Kentucky (29-10) used a 15-0 run right after halftime to establish an eight-point lead at the 15:33 mark, but then UW (30-8) responded 13-4 to lead 56-55 at 11:52. Much like Wisconsin's win last week against Arizona, this was a one-possession game for all but a few brief moments the rest of the way -- worthy of the massive 79,444 announced attendance.
"You're just trying to get one more stop and trying to get some separation," UW assistant coach Greg Gard said in a somber UW locker room afterward. "There was a stretch where we had a [67-62] lead and we needed to get a little more separation and we weren't able to."
Part of that comes from missed opportunities for UW, but part of it stems from Kentucky's second-half performance. The Cats didn't turn the ball over after halftime. After being held to four offensive rebounds in the second half, they got seven in the second. They came on six possessions and UK scored on every one of them, leading to a dominant 23-10 edge in second-chance points.
Kentucky finished with a 46-24 scoring edge in the paint. Julius Randle, UK's star freshman forward, finished with 16 points (6-of-10 FG) and five rebounds, three of which came on the offensive end. Johnson chipped in 10 and seven. Alex Poythress came off the bench to hit all four of his shots, including a tip-in, a dunk and a layup in the second half.
"They're big boys," Dekker (15 points, 3-of-4 FG, 1-of-2 3-pt, 8-of-8 FT) said. "Julius has always been the biggest kid on the playground. God did something right with him right there. They make you work, they make you fight. We have guys that have that fight, but a few possessions here and there they out-fought us and that's why they're on the winning side."
Still, the game was within UW's reach. It led for almost 18 minutes of game time after pulling ahead 11-9 and then for 8:03 after erasing Kentucky's second-half lead.
"We had a team and a dream and this was our dream," Dekker said. "It sucks to not be able to go all the way, but I think we can add this to our list. Always remember Kentucky, always remember what happened. This offseason's going to be about building ourselves up to not let this happen again."
The Badgers got production from a couple of their normal spots -- Brust tied Dekker with a team-high 15 points -- but also got huge contributions off the bench from freshman guard Bronson Koenig and Dukan.
Koenig played 16 minutes in the first half because Jackson found himself in foul trouble. The La Crosse, Wis., native scored all of his 11 points on 4-of-9 shooting in the first half. He also chipped in a steal and a beautiful assist to Dekker for a layup. In the second half, Dukan stopped UK's run with a put-back basket and then a three on Wisconsin's next possession.
Dukan entered play averaging 2.7 points per game in 7.9 minutes but scored all eight of his points in a 2:42 span.
Kentucky had an answer however. Wisconsin turned the ball over twice in the last three minutes and a layup from Poythress gave UK a 71-69 lead with 2:16 remaining. When Jackson missed a jumper a minute later, Kaminsky (10 points, four offensive rebounds) gathered the rebound and tied the game. Andrew Harrison missed a three, but the Cats played good defense before Jackson got Harrison in the air and drew a three-free throw foul with 16.4 seconds left. The Westerville, Ohio, native missed the first -- it was the lone miss on the night for the Badgers, who finished 19-of-20 at the stripe -- before hitting the last two. That set up the Harrison heroics and Jackson's last chance.
"I just kind of sat there," Dekker said of seeing the shot miss. "I couldn't cry, I couldn't smile, kind of chuckled to myself and thought, ‘what just happened?' It hasn't set in yet."