Wisconsin garnered headlines for staying incredibly loose during the bulk of its Sweet 16 business trip out to Los Angeles this week, but once the ball tipped against North Carolina on Thursday night, the Badgers looked anything but.
Yet as they've done all year long, the Badgers (34-3) stayed the course. Led by junior Sam Dekker's career-high 23 points and a huge effort from former walk-on Zak Showalter, top-seeded Wisconsin battled back from a seven-point deficit in the second half to defeat fourth-seeded North Carolina, 79-72, to advance to the Elite Eight for the second year in a row.
The Tar Heels (26-12) put on a great performance of their own, pushing the game's pace to their liking from the get-go. Six-foot-nine Brice Johnson was instrumental in getting easy buckets for North Carolina early, but it was UNC's three-point shooting that Wisconsin had to overcome.
A 35-percent three-point shooting team coming in, North Carolina hit 8-of-13 (65.1%) from behind the arc, while Wisconsin sank only 7-of-21. Justin Jackson's length proved to be a matchup problem for UW. The freshman went 3-for-3 from long distance, matching Johnson with 15 points to lead the Heels.
A surge by Dekker gave the Badgers a 25-20 lead, but UNC fought back as the Badgers continued to miss shots. The Tar Heels shot 50 percent in the half, including 4-for-7 from three-point land, compared to only 36.7 percent first-half shooting for the Badgers.
Trailing 53-46 midway through the second half, momentum shifted dramatically for Wisconsin around the 10-minute mark. A Bronson Koenig three-pointer, followed by a much-needed defensive stop and a traditional three-point play from Nigel Hayes on consecutive possessions, ignited a 19-7 run.
However, Koenig and UNC's Johnson took turns heading to the bench shortly thereafter, each picking up their fourth foul. It was Showalter who stepped in to continue Wisconsin's streak. The redshirt sophomore scored three layups, and added an assist and a steal to over the next three-and-a-half minutes to give the Badgers a lead they would not surrender.
Marcus Paige come on late with three treys of his own, though Josh Gasser did a remarkable job of defending UNC's floor general throughout the game.
Dekker, meanwhile, was the best player on the floor all night. Koenig found him twice early with nifty passes and the junior forward scored 15 points and grabbed six rebounds in the first half alone to keep his team afloat.
By contrast, Frank Kaminsky struggled out of the gate and did not score his first point until there were were fewer than nine minutes left in the first half. Trailing by four, Dekker scored a critical tip-in to narrow the deficit to 33-31 heading into the locker room, at which point Kaminsky and Koenig had combined to go just 2-for-13 from the field.
Jackson began to take over to start the second half for North Carolina. However, Wisconsin was able to clamp down on defense late as the shooting percentages evened out. Kaminsky finally came around on offense, finishing with 19 points and eight rebounds.
Early on, Wisconsin senior Traevon Jackson made his triumphant return with an three-pointer and he would play crucial minutes in relief of Koenig.
The Badgers made their last nine free throws to salt the game away, proving they can win at North Carolina's pace. In addition, Wisconsin wound up winning the rebounding battle, 35-28, led by Dekker's 10.
Wisconsin now awaits tonight's winner of the Arizona-Xavier game in the regional final to be played Saturday. Stay tuned to B5Q for Max Sternberg's full report from Los Angeles.
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