LOS ANGELES -- After reaching the Final Four just twice in the NCAA tournament's first 75 years, Wisconsin is headed to its second straight after defeating Arizona 85-78 in the West regional final at the Staples Center on Saturday.
Many of the storylines early in the tournament focused on the contributions of Wisconsin's less heralded and often maligned bench, which seemed to show up just at the right time in postseason play. But on Saturday night, it was all about the stars as senior Frank Kaminsky eclipsed last year's 28-point performance against the Wildcats (34-4) in the Elite Eight with 29, while junior Sam Dekker dropped a career-high 27 points on 8-of-11 shooting, 20 of those coming in the second half.
"I knew I had to stay aggressive," Dekker said. "I was put in a position to hit some shots and they were able to go down for me."
Dekker and Kaminsky led the way as the Badgers (35-3) overcame yet another halftime deficit, this time three points, by playing arguably their best offensive half of the season. UW hit 15 of 19 shots (79 percent) after the halftime break, including an unheard of 10 of 12 (83 percent) from beyond the three-point arc. Even though Arizona did well to hit 12 of 21 from the field during that span, the Wildcats simply had no chance with the floodgates wide open for the Badgers.
"Well, they've been like this pretty much all year, not at that percentage, but they are a disciplined group," UW head coach Bo Ryan said. "You don't shoot 79 percent every day in a half, but they were good shots."
Although Wisconsin was victorious in each of its first six postseason games, the Badgers had yet to put a consistent shooting stretch together prior to Saturday. But starting with an open three-pointer from Kaminsky on the Badgers' first possession of the second half, it seemed like every shot that didn't fall in the recent past started to go down.
"We had to regress back to our mean," sophomore forward Nigel Hayes said, using one of the Badgers' favorite mantras. "I think we shoot the ball well from beyond the arc and just from the field in general. The previous three games we hadn't really been knocking down our shots like that, so it was just a matter of time that the math caught up with us."
After Kaminsky evened the score briefly, Arizona regained a one-point lead on a free throw from sophomore Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the first of 20 made free throws for the Wildcats in the second half. But Wisconsin responded with a Dekker three at the other end, sparking a 9-0 run that gave UW a seven-point lead with 17:20 remaining.
"The shots were going in," senior forward Duje Dukan said. "We want to go inside-out. That's when we shoot at our best. We got good opportunities and guys knocked them down."
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After Dukan extended the UW lead to eight with three of his five points -- Wisconsin's only points off the bench -- Arizona responded with a 10-3 run over the next 2:48 to get within a single point. But as he did seemingly every time the Badgers needed him, Dekker answered at the other end with a deep three, restoring Wisconsin's cushion to four.
"You've just got to credit Sam," Arizona senior guard T.J. McConnell said. "He made big-time plays when they needed him to."
Every time Arizona punched, it seemed either Dekker or Kaminsky was there to punch right back. But they weren't alone in contributing to the second half onslaught. After Dekker's three, Arizona answered with another basket for Hollis-Jefferson, who finished with a team-high 17 points on 6-of-12 shooting before fouling out late, to pull within two. This time it was the supporting cast that went on a spurt for Wisconsin. Sophomore guard Bronson Koenig knocked down two free throws to push the lead back to four and then Hayes, who seemed off with his jumper most of the first half, drained the first of his two three-pointers to put UW up seven with less than 12 minutes to play.
"He didn't get down on himself," Ryan said of Hayes' response to a lackluster first half. "He came back and really defensively did a nice job for us and also hit some big shots. Those two threes in the second half were huge."
After Kaminsky capped off the 8-0 UW run with an interior bucket, the Badgers never let Arizona back into the game. The Wildcats certainly made their fair share of pushes down the stretch, scoring 30 points in the final 10:34, but it wasn't enough with Dekker and crew answering seemingly every challenge they faced late in the game.
"Their offensive execution and their ability to make shots in the second half, it was like a video game," Arizona head coach Sean Miller said. "They made shots, and if they play like that next weekend, they have a chance to win it all."
Arizona did all it could and still came out on the losing end for a second straight year. The Wildcats shot a better percentage from the field than the Badgers (55.8 percent to 55.6) but lost after entering the game 27-0 when leading the FG percentage battle and 17-0 when shooting over 50 percent. Arizona forced nine Wisconsin turnovers and got to the line 30 times, a startling number against a UW team that fouls at a historically low pace.
"I still don't think we played our best 40 minutes," UW sophomore Zak Showalter said. "But we definitely shot the best we could shoot."
Wisconsin effectively shot its way through to the Final Four on Saturday night. After the Badgers shot just 10-of-26 from the field in the first half and missed two of their first six attempts after the halftime break, they closed with a torrid 11-for-13 stretch, with Dekker hitting each of his 6 shot attempts in the second half, including five from three-point range.
"That's the best I have ever seen him play and I have been playing with him for years going back to AAU," Koenig said. "He comes ready to play in the biggest stages."
The offensive numbers for Wisconsin were extraordinary down the stretch. Until senior guard Josh Gasser missed a three-point attempt with 4:37 remaining, no Badger other than Kaminsky had missed a shot from the field during the second half. After Gasser's miss, the Badgers didn't miss again, as Dekker knocked down three more buckets (two from deep) and the supporting cast put together an ensemble of five free throws to seal the deal.
"We had to buckle down on both ends of the court," Gasser said. "You can get hot for certain periods of time and fortunately we were able to maintain that hot shooting streak until the buzzer sounded."
Wisconsin will need to continue that hot shooting next weekend in Indianapolis when it faces top-ranked and undefeated Kentucky in the national semifinal. Having already taken down two opponents that were seeking to avenge 2014 NCAA tournament defeats at the hands of the Badgers, UW now shifts its focus to avenging the way that tournament came to an end by beating a Kentucky team that has been in the Badgers' minds since they returned home from North Texas last year.
"It motivated all of us to work hard in the offseason to get another opportunity," Dukan said. "You only get four years in college and we wanted to take advantage of that."
Having had their fun in the sun during last year's Final Four appearance, it's a much different tone as the Badgers return to the final stop on what they hope is a path to the program's first national title since 1941.
"It's a great accomplishment getting to the Final Four," Gasser said. "We've accomplished everything we set out for this year, to this point. But the big goal is still to be had."