Wisconsin goes distance to beat Arizona in West Regional final, 85-78

Wisconsin goes distance to beat Arizona in West Regional final, 85-78
Teammates and fans celebrate after Wisconsin forward Sam Dekker sinks a three-point shot late in the game to help seal a victory over Arizona in the West Regional final on Saturday at Staples Center. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Wisconsin defeated Arizona for the 2014 West Regional title at the Honda Center in a hotly contested thriller that ended in controversy and overtime.

A lengthy replay review was required to decide possession for the final shot.


What was different about 2015: everything.

There was no controversy in Saturday's rematch at Staples Center, no overtime and, trust us, Arizona doesn't want to go to the replay monitor.

This wasn't a cliffhanger as much as it was a net burner.

Top-seeded Wisconsin shot a sizzling 78.9% in the second half to earn an 85-78 win over second-seeded Arizona and claim the West Regional final.

The Badgers (35-3) earned a second straight Final Four trip and moved from one rematch to another.

Wisconsin will play Kentucky next Saturday in Indianapolis, hoping to avenge last year's one-point loss in the national semifinals.

If only the Badgers could bring Saturday's second-half shooting numbers against Arizona —15 for 19.

"You don't shoot 79% in a half every day," Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan said. "But they were good shots, and they probably shouldn't have missed the other four."

Wisconsin stars Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker combined for 56 points in a one-two shooters' show that will be remembered in Madison for years to come.

Kaminsky and Dekker came to the interview room with pieces of net tied to their turned-backward Final Four baseball caps.

They shared the net-cutting at Staples with Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who joined the postgame celebration at midcourt. Wisconsin has advanced to consecutive Final Four trips for the first time in school history.

Kaminsky cited Saturday as a reason he opted not to turn professional last year.

"You come back to school for moments like this," he said.

Dekker scored 20 of his 27 points in a perfect second half in which he made all six shots, five from three-point range, and all three free-throw attempts.

"All in all, it was just a lot of confidence," Dekker said. "I was put into a position to hit some shots and they were able to go down for me."

When it wasn't the 6-foot-9 junior wrecking Arizona's chances, it was 7-foot senior Kaminsky, who finished with a game-high 29 points.

Few had seen anything like it.

"No," Ryan said. "I don't remember one like that."

Dekker and Kaminsky combined to make 17 of 31 shots.

Kaminsky was mostly Mr. Inside Badger, rooting out Arizona's interior defense with a variety of pump fakes and spin moves.

He put Arizona forward Brandon Ashley on the bench with two fouls within two minutes of opening tipoff.

Dekker was Mr. Outside Badger, making impossible shots from all sorts of awkward angles.

When Arizona climbed back to within five points, Dekker hit a long three with 1:46 left to push the lead back to 79-71.

For good measure, he ended all comeback doubt when he splashed in another three with 17 seconds left. He made that one over the outstretched arm of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona's best defender.

It was the last of 12 three-pointers (in 18 attempts) for Wisconsin, which outscored Arizona by 30 points from beyond the arc. The Wildcats made two of six three-point tries.

For Arizona Coach Sean Miller, it was like a game of whack-a-mole.

When he put Hollis-Jefferson on Dekker, Kaminsky would then take over. Then, he'd switch Hollis-Jefferson to Kaminsky and Dekker would go off.

"Our problem," Miller said later, "is that he can't guard two people."

Miller was conciliatory in defeat because, really, there was no other position to take.

The game didn't come down to one call, or possession. It came down to one team shooting Arizona's lights out.

"Their second half, offensively, was spectacular, " Miller said. "Extraordinary."

Miller said he emptied the bucket — "and it was a big one" — looking for a defensive combination that could slow the Badgers' dynamic duo.

"We tried everything," he said.

It was heart-rending, in the final minutes, to see Arizona senior guard T.J. McConnell check out of the game and collapse, sobbing, into Miller's arms.

McConnell, who played his last game, said he desperately wanted to earn a Final Four bid for Miller.

"That guy right there is like my dad," McConnell said at the postgame news conference.

Oddly, the defeat, unlike last year's, probably won't linger into the summer.

Wisconsin just had one of those days.

"It almost takes the bite out of the loss, in a way," Miller said.

Arizona certainly could have performed better out of the locker room.

The Wildcats were outscored 5-0 to open the game and 11-1 to open the second half.

Arizona actually took a three-point lead into the half, only to watch Wisconsin erase it with its shooting blitz.

Maybe, in the end, there was nothing Arizona could have done. Five Wildcats scored in double figures, with Ashley and Hollis-Jefferson each contributing 17 points.

Defeat was a tough pill considering Arizona, which finishes at 34-4, fell short again. Miller has lost in regional finals four times in the last seven years.

"That's probably a record, right?" he said.

Arizona may need to reconsider whether playing for a high seeding in the West is actually a good thing. Since 1975, the Wildcats are 1-6 in regional final games played in Southern California.

For what it's worth, next year's West Regional is scheduled back at the Honda Center in Anaheim.