We wrote about it multiple times this week — the memory of the 1991 Final Four in Indianapolis loomed over the heavyweight national semifinal on Saturday night between Wisconsin and Kentucky.
Nearly a quarter of a century since Duke ruined UNLV’s unbeaten season in Indianapolis, Wisconsin traveled to the Hoosier heartland to make its own memorable moment. Kentucky — having survived a spirited challenge from Notre Dame in the Midwest Regional final — came to this game with the confidence which flows from staring down a severe threat and meeting it with pure steel.
UNLV was the best team at the 1991 Final Four, but in Duke, it found a great opponent which was able to play better on gameday. There remains no question that Kentucky is the best team in this 2015 college basketball season, but in an echo from the past, Wisconsin rose higher in an epic national semifinal. The Badgers overcame themselves, a number of difficult in-game occurrences, and — most of all — Kentucky. Their perseverance and intelligence in the final minutes of regulation enabled them to simultaneously stop history in its tracks and open the door to a different sort of crescendo at the 2015 Final Four.
It’s hard enough to play Kentucky, and yes, let it be said that the officiating in this game was bad both ways. Nevertheless, Wisconsin had to think that the CBS-Turner fix was in after one specific sequence with roughly 5:35 left in regulation and Kentucky leading, 60-56.
Basketball played at the highest level is extremely hard to officiate accurately in real time. For all the flak officials catch, their job is not an easy one, and parents don’t generally raise their sons and daughters to wear zebra stripes. This is not a culturally applauded job. Officials are necessary more than they are admired, and that’s going to be the prevailing reality of big-ticket sports as long as all of us live on this earth.
Officials will miss calls in real time, so one can’t claim “motive” on almost any call in a game. However, when officials get a chance to look at a monitor and review something they might have missed… and don’t do anything about it… people’s eyebrows get raised and their brains start to utter the C-word: conspiracy.
This half-slap, half-punch by Kentucky’s Trey Lyles on Wisconsin’s Josh Gasser was reviewed and found to not be a flagrant 1 foul:
— Sporting News (@sportingnews) April 5, 2015
Wisconsin plainly should have been able to get a pair of foul shots, so at a time when the Badgers had scored just four points in the previous nine minutes and had allowed Kentucky to go on a 16-4 run to turn a 52-44 deficit into a four-point advantage, the missed call — one which the officials had a chance to correct, but didn’t — felt particularly oppressive.
Most teams probably would not have found a way to bounce back from this, and what’s more is that Wisconsin didn’t know for sure that it would, either. The Badgers, who led Kentucky by a 67-62 score with 5:30 left in the 2014 Final Four national semifinals before faltering late, had to turn the tables in their bid to avenge that loss. This game is the opportunity Wisconsin waited 12 full months to earn, because Kentucky ripped out the Badgers’ guts on Aaron Harrison’s game-winning three in the final 10 seconds of that 2014 semifinal. Was Wisconsin strong enough between the ears to marry poise with performance in those final five and a half minutes, despite a great team — and hard-to-take calls — fighting against them?
Teams that want to be remembered — teams that want to hunt down history and settle old scores — scale these Everest-sized obstacles. Wisconsin quite genuinely climbed to a great height in those five and a half minutes, destroying Kentucky’s grand hope of a 40-0 season and a cherished piece of college basketball immortality.
Wisconsin lost its 52-44 lead midway through the second half for two reasons: One, Kentucky’s an excellent team, a team that — whenever it did fall behind by seven- or nine-point margins in this tournament — unfailingly gathered itself and rallied, never allowing an opponent to break open an even larger working margin. Kentucky’s knack for putting together clean and simple possessions — not always getting a made jumper, but putting its bigs in position to clean up on the glass at the very least — led the Cats on the comeback trail.
The other reason Wisconsin’s lead evaporated is that the Badgers started to rush basic movements and actions. Nigel Hayes threw a difficult pass immediately after catching an inbound pass in the left corner. Josh Gasser took three steps after beating his defender on a drive to the basket; one more dribble on the deck would have given him a layup. Kentucky — resolute throughout this contest — had plenty to do with Wisconsin’s struggles, but the Badgers’ errors were more often of the unforced kind than the forced variety.
In the final 5:30, Wisconsin needed Kentucky’s formula of simple possessions and simple logic. The Wildcats survived Notre Dame in the Elite Eight because they got the ball to their best player, Karl-Anthony Towns, at crunch time. Similarly, Wisconsin rallied down the stretch in Lucas Oil Stadium because it entrusted its own best players with the rock.
With 4:28 left, Sam Dekker — one of Wisconsin’s two best players — hit a short shot in the middle of the paint to stop the bleeding and pull the Badgers within two, at 60-58. After a number of offensive rebounds by Wisconsin shortened the game and minimized Kentucky’s possessions, the Badgers forged a 60-all tie on a Nigel Hayes putback basket which did not beat the shot clock and therefore should not have counted. (This is the affirmation of the reality that the officiating was bad both ways on Saturday night.)
Locked in a 60-all tie, Wisconsin gained another defensive stop and then allowed Dekker to take center stage. The forward — who had scored on a drive minutes earlier — used the threat of a drive to set up a perfectly-executed stepback three. It splashed through the twine and gave Wisconsin more than just a 63-60 lead; it also gave the Badgers leverage, knowing that if they took away the three-point shot and made their free throws, they’d be able to bring home the upset.
On the Badgers’ next two possessions after gaining that 63-60 lead, Dekker and teammate Frank Kaminsky attacked the basket to draw fouls. The two made three of four foul shots on those trips, and with Kentucky unable to summon the three-point magic of 2014 against Wisconsin, the Badgers were able to retain the lead and gain possession, up by two at 66-64 with 13 seconds remaining. Bronson Koenig — purposefully fouled by Kentucky — made two shots at the 13-second mark. Aaron Harrison — 2014’s hero for Big Blue — missed a three with eight seconds left, and a 24-year-old memory had been resurrected on the night before Easter Sunday.
Kentucky’s dream of perfection was sent to the tomb, the stone rolled over the entrance.
The most significanct intersections of history and opportunity in sports are meant to be cherished when they emerge.
It’s not every day that a baseball team has a chance to end a World Series drought of more than 80 years.
It’s not a run-of-the-mill thing for a male tennis player to attempt to win the same major tournament 10 times, as Rafael Nadal will have a chance to do this spring at the French Open in Paris.
It’s not an ordinary occurrence for NFL teams to have a chance to win back-to-back Super Bowls, as the New England Patriots did a decade ago and as the Seattle Seahawks almost did this past February.
When something special comes along the path in sports, a great game such as Wisconsin-Kentucky 2015 is magnified by the stakes and the circumstances. It is more than enough for a sports fan to have seen a game this elevated in quality. It is a college basketball fan’s exquisite reward to be given this slice of artistry and precision after a season packed with choppy and uneven play.
Yet, it is the presence of history — that which was almost made by Kentucky, and that which was repeated by Wisconsin, 24 years after “Duke 79, UNLV 77” — which will make Saturday night’s masterpiece a memory that will endure for generations.
Supreme quality, displayed in the face of history and the weight it carries in the crucible of top-tier competition. Both teams brought excellence to Indianapolis on Saturday.
Resolve, exhibited against the run of play in the face of a 38-0 opponent. Wisconsin encountered the same basic situation Kentucky encountered a year earlier in the Final Four semifinals and delivered the same winning response.
Catharsis, achieved on a sport’s biggest stage, courtesy of one’s best players. The Badgers found this against Kentucky, with Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky playing every bit as well as they hoped to on the night that meant everything for Wisconsin basketball.
Kentucky’s dream died on Saturday, but it died not because of its deficiencies. Wisconsin’s excellence won this game far more than Kentucky lost it with any shortcomings.
The story of college basketball has been forever altered as a result, and that is why we’ve watched a moment every bit as stirring as Duke-UNLV 1991, the defining memory of college basketball fans from a previous generation.
A generationally great AND significant college basketball game? We watched one Saturday night in Indinapolis… 24 years after the same drama played out for an older set of fans.