INDIANAPOLIS -- A basket for Bronson Koenig gives Wisconsin a nine-point lead, forcing Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski to call yet another timeout in hopes of keeping the game from getting away from his struggling Blue Devils. After an offseason motivated by revenge and a season defined by the pursuit of history, it looked like the Badgers were on the brink Monday night of bringing a national title to Madison for the first time in 74 years.
Less than an hour later, all of those hopes and dreams had faded into a daze.
When the final buzzer sounded, it was as if a dream had ended, the Badgers (36-4) waking up to find that for some reason the confetti that had been awaiting them was blue and it was Duke (35-4) waiting on the court to take the podium after a 68-63 victory.
After Krzyzewski's timeout, the Blue Devils outscored Wisconsin 29-15, snatching the game away over the final 12:52 and bringing UW's dream season to an abrupt and empty conclusion.
"Honestly, the game feels like a blur," senior forward Duje Dukan said. "Everybody was feeling confident but we made a mistake as far as letting them back in the game and they made us pay for it."
Without a doubt, Wisconsin did not play its best on this biggest of stages. The Badgers made just seven of their 21 three-point attempts (33 percent) and shot just 41 percent from the field overall. Other than a stretch at the beginning of the second half during which UW outscored Duke 17-8 to take that nine-point lead, the Blue Devils seemed to have little trouble getting to the rim and finishing, particularly from the backcourt duo of freshmen Tyus Jones and Grayson Allen.
Allen, a reserve who played sporadic minutes for large stretches of the season, scored 16 points on 5-of-8 shooting, outscoring every Wisconsin player except national player of the year Frank Kaminsky, who finished the game with 21 points and 12 rebounds to lead the Badgers. Jones, a Minnesota native, overcame a quiet opening stanza and scored 19 points in the second half to get the Blue Devils over the top and onto the podium.
"We didn't play our best, but we played well," senior Josh Gasser said. "We just ran into a really good team and we needed to play exceptionally well if we wanted to win."
Right up to the final buzzer, the Badgers truly believed they would be the last team standing. From the moment they were eliminated in a heartbreaking loss to Kentucky during last year's Final Four, all 17 players in that Wisconsin locker room were determined to finish what they thought they had started in 2014 and not even a historically talented, not to mention undefeated, Kentucky team was going to stand in the way.
To come so close to making that belief pay off, only to find the pursuit come crashing to a halt just short of the final destination, made the loss almost impossible to even comprehend.
"The only thing we cared about since our season ended last year was getting back and winning a national championship," sophomore Nigel Hayes said. "We were a couple possessions, a couple calls, a couple plays away from realizing that goal."
As the clock ticked under 15 minutes in the second half, it seemed like just a matter of time. Sophomore Bronson Koenig, who was quiet in the first half, found his stride and knocked down each of his next four field-goal attempts, hitting three straight shots during a hot spurt that seemed poised for the history books.
But after Koenig hit a jumper to push the Badgers' lead to seven, head coach Bo Ryan replaced him with senior Traevon Jackson. Koenig would not score another point the rest of the way and the Badgers offense, which had been operating at a level nearly comparable with that of the historic second-half performance against Arizona, never again found its stride.
"We were close," Dukan said. "Everybody was feeling pretty confident but we made a mistake letting them back in the game and they made us pay for it."
With Koenig cooled on the bench, Allen took the game into his own hands. He cut Wisconsin's lead to six with a three-point shot out of the Duke timeout and after forcing a Jackson turnover, pulled the Blue Devils within three on a bucket-and-foul that also sent Duke into the bonus with over 12 minutes remaining.
"They were going to eventually make a run," Koenig said. "But it was tough with those and-one calls."
Now that Duke had walked away from the precipice of defeat, the Badgers' collective foul trouble became a crutch. The Blue Devils, who attempted just four free throws in the first half, made 16 trips to the line in the second half, hitting 12 free throws to Wisconsin's three during the defining moments.
"They were aggressive all right," Koenig said of Duke's attack in the second half. "We just tried to play defense like we've played all year and the refs weren't really used to that."
For a team as close off the court as Wisconsin, the end of the season was going to be hard to take no matter when and how it came upon them. But with the season ending like this, in title game heartbreak, the locker room was left in a state of shock.
"It will be impossible to replicate," Koenig said of the camaraderie. "It will be a lot different, but every team goes through that, so I'm sure we will be alright."
Even though the dream turned almost on a dime into heartbreak, Wisconsin has accomplished so much over the past two seasons. After failing to advance beyond the Sweet 16 in eight consecutive NCAA tournaments, the Badgers reached the Final Four not once, but twice, in the process picking up arguably the greatest victory in program history with Saturday's defeat of previously undefeated Kentucky.
Once a perennially slow and plodding team that somehow wiggled its way onto the periphery of the Big Ten title conversation, Wisconsin now sits firmly among the elite programs in the country and has earned the respect that it perhaps deserved for quite a while. Either way, the accomplishments of this senior class, the winningest in school history, will not soon be forgotten.
"We wanted to create a standard of going to Final Fours, winning Big Ten championships, winning Big Ten Tournament championships," Dukan said. "I think we did a great job of doing that our last two seasons, going to back-to-back Final Fours. Hopefully the younger guys in the locker room can learn from that and for seasons to come get back to where we were this year."
While the sting remains fresh in the wake of defeat, falling short of a national championship will not keep this season and this group of players from a spot in the history books.
"I'm excited for the day I can look back and really be happy about it," Gasser said. "It was something special we could have had and we didn't get it, but we had an unbelievable season and I had an unbelievable career. I couldn't ask for anything better."