INDIANAPOLIS -- Over the last month, Wisconsin has faced no shortage of experience playing with the season hanging in the balance. After overcoming yet another one of those do-or-die situations in Saturday night's Final Four win over Kentucky, the Badgers now know the season will consist of just one more game, one more chance to finish what they started a year ago when the clock sounded on a heartbreaking Final Four defeat.
The story most wrote Saturday night is that Wisconsin, a program that was virtually irrelevant from 1941 to 2000, has now reached its second straight Final Four appearance and ended what was on the verge of being one of the greatest seasons in college basketball history. Thanks to the Badgers, Kentucky's 38-1 year has come to a close without a title in hand.
But the reason those stories are possible is that this team, Bo Ryan's most talented in 14 years at the helm in Madison, just refuses to lose. No amount of talent, no number of frustrating calls or missed shots was going to keep this team from having a shot at the national title Monday night.
"Last year's game obviously was motivation, not because of Kentucky, but just because of how far we got," junior forward Sam Dekker said, referencing last year's Final Four heartbreak in Texas. "That was a hump we wanted to get over. It didn't matter who was in front of us. We just wanted to get a chance to play for the national title."
Although the Badgers talked at length about how that loss had been a significant motivational force throughout the offseason, Saturday night proved that it was never about Kentucky, never about getting in the way of perfection.
Wisconsin wasn't looking to prevent history; the Badgers were determined to make it.
"That history stuff is probably more for them," senior Josh Gasser said. "They were going for an undefeated season. We were going for a national championship."
Five years ago, the thought of playing Duke for a national title was a bit of a dream for this Wisconsin program. Although the Badgers had reached 11 consecutive NCAA tournaments, they had not been to the Final Four since Dick Bennett took them there in 2000 and had reached the Elite Eight just once (in 2005) in nine seasons under Ryan. In the 2010 tournament, they had barely survived Wofford in the first round, falling just two days later to No. 12 seed Cornell.
During that offseason, Wisconsin brought in two largely unheralded additions in Gasser and Duje Dukan. Over the next five years, this pair of roommates has helped the Badgers to four Sweet 16 appearances, consecutive Final Fours and now a national title game appearance, with the chance Monday night to capture the school's first national title since 1941.
"We came in as freshman and wanted to make a mark on this program. We wanted to change things around, change the culture to make it more of a habit to go deeper in the tournament," Dukan said after the Badgers' third-round NCAA tournament win over Oregon last month. "I think slowly but surely we've made that happen, but obviously the job's not done yet now."
Dukan and Gasser have been the catalyst in making exactly the change they sought to make when they came TO campus back in 2010. Although Wisconsin had, under Bennett and Ryan, made a miraculous transformation from Big Ten laughingstock to perennial conference title contender and NCAA tournament team, the Badgers just could not take that next step into the game's upper echelons, falling short time after time in March when the lights of the college basketball world shine brightest.
While Wisconsin has certainly benefitted from having an unusual amount of talent during these past two seasons, the consecutive Final Four appearances are a direct result of the culture Gasser, Dukan and others have brought to this Badger program. Success on the national stage is no longer an aspiration; it's an expectation.
This year, the Badgers just don't seem to ever consider the possibility of falling short.
"I truly believed we were going to win this game. I truly believed we were going to win the Big Ten and make it to the national championship and I truly believe we are going to win it," Gasser said. "There's a difference between having confidence and truly knowing you are going to do it. This team has that."
Even after Kentucky took a 60-56 lead and had regained possession with less than six minutes to play, when it looked to most of the 72,238 in attendance like the Badgers were running out of gas, there was not an ounce of doubt on the sideline that a celebration was forthcoming when the buzzer finally sounded.
"I'm extremely proud of the way our guys hung in there when it looked like we dug ourselves a hole that we could never get out of," Ryan said. "These guys just gutted it out."
The Badgers have made a habit of gutting out games during a postseason run that has not yet suffered a blemish. Wisconsin faced second-half deficits in each of its three Big Ten tournament victories and has had to overcome three more such deficits during this NCAA tournament run, not to mention gutting out another win in the third-round after Oregon had pulled even with less than six minutes to play.
Every time the bell has been rung, the Badgers have answered it in resounding fashion.
"We've been through a lot of situations where we've been in close games and we've pulled them out," Dukan said. "It was just a matter of confidence and resiliency."
While this is already the most successful season in Wisconsin history, the Badgers still have one game to gut out before they will have reached the goals get during an offseason motivated by heartbreak and a desire to put to bed some unfinished business.
"We all believed we could make the national championship and win it," senior Josh Gasser said. "We've got 40 minutes left and we are going to try to take advantage of it."