LOS ANGELES -- For a team that has won 34 games by an average of over 15 points, Wisconsin sure has had to dig deep of late to continue its push toward a return trip to the Final Four. Thursday night was no exception. as the No. 1 seed Badgers faced a seven-point deficit with less than 11 minutes left before uncorking runs of 6-0 and 9-0 over the final 10-plus minutes to finally outlast No. 4 seed North Carolina in a 79-72 Sweet 16 win at the Staples Center.
Although senior forward Frank Kaminsky seemed to get most of the attention in UNC's (26-12) scouting report, junior Sam Dekker was the key to Wisconsin's (34-3) offensive attack. Dekker was active from the opening tip, keeping Wisconsin close during the first half and pulled the Badgers over the top down the stretch. He opened the UW scoring and snapped an 0-of-5 start from the field for the team with a three-pointer from the right wing and ultimately finished the first half with 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting.
"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. "Frank set some good rub screens and we just tried to attack them right away. They got switched up a couple times on those 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."
While he was quieted for a good portion of the second half, Dekker came up big down the stretch, most notably with a key bucket inside that gave the Badgers a four-point lead heading into the final minute. Dekker's late score was the last of a 23-point, 10-rebound performance that was arguably the best of his career and undoubtedly came at a crucial time for UW.
"He came up huge for us," UW sophomore guard Bronson Koenig said. "He comes ready to play in big-time games and I thought he was big for us getting to the basket."
While the pre-game storylines for UW focused primarily on the return of senior guard Traevon Jackson, it was another guard who came off the bench to save the day for Wisconsin. Sophomore Zak Showalter, who gave the Badgers a huge boost off the bench in Sunday's third-round win over Oregon, took that performance a step further, contributing six points on 3-of-3 shooting in eight pivotal minutes of play.
"Showy comes in and gives us everything he's got," said Koenig, who struggled most of the night with foul trouble and poor shooting. "He pretty much won the game for us."
Though North Carolina as a group typically struggles with the outside jumper, the Tar Heels knocked down eight three-point shots in just 13 attempts, forcing the Badgers to deal with an added dimension that wasn't in the scouting report.
"They are a team that makes four or five threes a game and they made eight," Wisconsin sophomore forward Nigel Hayes said. "That's just what happens in tournament time."
As the Badgers like to point out, teams and players will almost invariably revert to their averages by the end of the game. Though for a while it looked like the Tar Heels might be an exception, they eventually hit a cold snap that turned a 22-of-41 (54 percent) start into a 26-of-56 (46 percent) finish from the field, giving Wisconsin the opening it needed to push through to the Elite Eight.
"It's tournament time, so we know players are going to hit tough shots," Koenig said. "But we knew they were going to regress to the mean and start missing eventually, and we knew we had a run left in us."
As they did almost two weeks ago against Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament championship, the Badgers capitalized on Tar Heel shooting slump, erasing the seven-point UNC lead over the course of just over four minutes. Despite their backs being firmly against the wall, the Badgers never flinched, closing out the game with a calmness one would expect from a November non-conference tilt more so than with the entire season riding in the balance.
"This group never gets discouraged to the point where they get down on themselves or their teammates," UW head coach Bo Ryan said. "This group right here handles adversity as well as any team I've ever coached."
As is seemingly befitting of this Wisconsin team, it was a defensive stop by senior guard Josh Gasser that sparked the comeback. With the Tar Heels up seven, Dekker missed a three-point attempt for the Badgers, allowing the Tar Heels to get out in transition off the long rebound. Junior forward J.P. Tokoto, a Menominee Falls, Wis., native, appeared to have a lane to the basket but was cut off by Gasser, who stood his ground and forced a crucial turnover.
"Its strange, the difference between winning and losing is so small," UNC head coach Roy Williams said. "We had J.P. [Tokoto] on the breakaway, not a breakaway, but open court, and we didn't convert on that one. Then they came back."
Gasser's defensive stand seemed to spark a Badger defense that had struggled to get crucial stops for most of the night and had not limited the Tar Heels' transition opportunities the way they would have liked.
"That was a big play that goes under the radar a little bit," Gasser said. "To get a stop there and come back and get a score, those are the type of plays that can really turn the tide of a game."
Though Wisconsin had emphasized limiting the number of transition opportunities, the Tar Heels scored eight quick points in transition and had added two more by the time Gasser was left to deal with a driving Tokoto. But after that sequence, UNC did not score again on the run and finished just 4-of-15 from the field as their lead evaporated.
"That's what I like about our guys," Ryan said. "The adjustment that they made and the fact that we only turned the ball over twice with their pressure and with their athletes pressuring us, that was nothing short of phenomenal."
After that sequence, Wisconsin ran off a 6-0 run to cut the North Carolina lead to just a single point and then, after trading baskets for a few minutes, rattled off nine straight points to turn a four-point deficit into a five-point lead UW would never relinquish.
It was during that nine-point run that Showalter came up big, assisting on a Kaminsky three-pointer to start the push and then scoring on back-to-back opportunities capped off by a steal and layup that gave the Badgers a 63-60 cushion with less than six minutes to play.
"I just looked at Josh [Gasser] and I saw how hard he was battling," Showalter said. "When you look at a senior that's put in all that work and see what he's done for this team, how can you not play hard? When I got in the game, that's all I tried to do."
While any win in the NCAA tournament is a good win, particularly over a team as talented as North Carolina, Wisconsin by no means played a perfect game. Both Hayes and Kaminsky struggled for long stretches, with Kaminsky staying scoreless for the first 11:21 of the game. More importantly, the Badgers did not do a great job for much of the game taking away what the Tar Heels like to do offensively
"The mindset going into the game was to limit their transition and right off the bat they got two dunks in transition," Gasser said. "We just couldn't get consecutive stops, we couldn't get three, four in a row like we usually do. But the last couple of minutes when we needed to, just like we have in the past, we found a way to get it done."
Despite struggles on the offensive and defensive ends, Wisconsin found a way to come out on the winning end and earned another 40-minute extension to the season. Now the Badgers face yet another date with No. 2 seed Arizona and having already overcome a rematch against Oregon in the Round of 32, will have to once again turn the clock back to 2014 in order to earn a spot in Indianapolis for a second straight Final Four appearance.
"We don't really have time to celebrate," Koenig said. "It will be a battle."