LOS ANGELES — While No. 1 Wisconsin has been on the receiving end of a lot of attention this season, national Player of the Year candidate Frank Kaminsky has been the focus of many. Thursday night in the first half of a tight Sweet 16 matchup with No. 4 North Carolina, it was junior forward Sam Dekker who took on the starring role.
With Kaminsky off to a slow start in the first half Dekker (ten rebounds) stepped forward, scoring 15 of his game-high 23 points to keep the Badgers within striking distance of the Tar Heels. In the second half Kaminsky (eight rebounds) grabbed the reins, scoring 15 of his 19 points to help lead Wisconsin to the 79-72 victory.
“I just don’t get frustrated,” Kaminsky said when asked about the difference for him in the second half. “Sam had a great first half and really kept us in that game. Without Sam out there getting buckets, he had that tip-in at the end of the first half and that really helped us out. So I just knew coming out in the second half I had to be aggressive and try to open up things for my teammates and I was able to do so.”
As a result Wisconsin will play for a second straight trip to the Final Four on Saturday, with either No. 2 Arizona or No. 6 Xavier being the opposition. Brice Johnson and Justin Jackson scored 15 points apiece to lead the way for North Carolina, with Marcus Paige scoring eight points late to finish with 12 on 4-for-11 shooting thanks to the efforts of Wisconsin senior guard Josh Gasser.
North Carolina shot 8-for-13 from beyond the arc on the night, but that wasn’t enough as Wisconsin managed to find its groove offensively in the second half. As a team the Badgers shot 57.7 percent from the field in the second half, converting 11 of their 15 two-pointers after shooting 8-for-20 from two in the first. Wisconsin’s experience and maturity, which has been a hallmark of Ryan’s teams, kept the team from getting discouraged by the fact that their shots weren’t falling and that mindset paid off in the second half.
“We know how fickle the game can be. These guys have been through a lot,” Ryan said. “They’ve seen the good runs. They’ve seen the bad runs. But this group never gets discouraged to the point where they get down on themselves or their teammates, and that’s what’s fun.
“And I’ve had a lot of teams like that. It’s not like we haven’t coached those kind of guys. But this group right here handles adversity as well as any team I’ve ever coached.”
Wisconsin hasn’t played its best basketball during this NCAA tournament, but they’ve managed to step forward when the moment demanded it. Against North Carolina, that moment came with the Tar Heels leading by seven with 11:11 remaining. With Kaminsky sidelined after taking a shot to the face, Bronson Koenig made a three-pointer to cut the deficit to four with 10:25 remaining.
And once Kaminsky returned to the floor, Wisconsin went on a 9-0 run to wrestle away control from the Tar Heels. From that point forward Wisconsin was able to do enough to hold off North Carolina, making their final eight free throws to close out the game.
“We don’t need to get in each other’s faces. We just know how to stay calm,” Kaminsky noted. “Like I said, we’re a veteran group and we understand situations and we’ve been through a lot as a group. So we know what it takes to win games like that at the end of the game. We were just going out there and having fun and trying to do whatever we could to win.”
The issue for North Carolina wasn’t so much their defense throughout the game, as they were solid on that end of the floor for most of the night. The issue were lapses at inopportune times, and those can be the difference in tight games of this magnitude. Wisconsin rebounded nearly 39 percent of its misses, and while they converted those opportunities into just nine second-chance points those plays added up according to Paige.
“Our defensive pressure is something we talked about coming into this game. We wanted to pressure them and not allow them to be comfortable, and we did that for the most part,” Paige said. “The problem was we couldn’t finish our defense on key possessions. You know, they got a tip-out or offensive rebound and that’s how they made us pay today. They would kick it out and make a three, or run another 35 seconds off the clock.
“So our initial defense was pretty good despite a couple lapses. It was pretty strong, pretty intense the entire game. We just couldn’t get enough finishes in terms of getting rebounds.”