Column

Sam Dekker will have another chance to become a hero for Wisconsin

Wisconsin's Sam Dekker made clutch shots in high school and in regional final game against Arizona last week

Three years ago, Sam Dekker took an inbound pass in the closing seconds of the Wisconsin high school basketball championship game.

With Sheboygan Area Lutheran trailing by two points, Dekker dribbled behind his back and raced to the right corner before lifting up, and lofting home, the title-winning three-point shot.

It was the kind of moment that earned Dekker the nickname "Wisconsin Mr. Basketball" and a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin.

"That was cold-blooded, I can tell you that," Bo Ryan, the Badgers' coach, recalled of Dekker's high school heroics.

Dekker made an eerily similar shot last week in the tight moments of the NCAA West Regional title game at Staples Center.

Call it the "Double Dekker."

The latest rainbow shot dropped after Arizona's Gabe York hit a three-pointer to cut Wisconsin's lead to 76-71.

Dekker answered with his high-arc three with 1:46 left, and it clinched Wisconsin's second consecutive trip to the Final Four.

He said the shot against Arizona probably had a little more loft to it. "They were both pretty sweet," Dekker said, comparing the two.

Yes, and so, finally, is life.

Dekker came into the West Regional as a homegrown hero who had failed to live up to expectations. The 6-feet-9 junior forward was supposed to be more than a sidekick to star teammate Frank Kaminsky, but an ankle injury in October slowed Dekker to a point that some people were critical about the pace of his development.

Dekker scored only four points against Boise State, five against Alabama-Birmingham and Duke, and two against Marquette.

He didn't tell people how much he was hurting inside.

"I heard a lot of stuff," Dekker said. " 'Why isn't he the player we thought?' People asked me to my face if something was wrong with me. You just have to go on with a smile."

Dekker said on road trips he logged off social media so as not be distracted by outside chatter. "That's just going to drive you insane," he said.

The personal struggle was easier because Wisconsin was winning.

"It helped me grow up," Dekker said of the adversity. "I realized it wasn't all about me getting to the rim or making explosive plays. It was just me trying to do the little things right. I think that helped us as a team."

Everyone knew Dekker had to step it up if Wisconsin was going to make it back to the Final Four.

Dekker ran up a staircase in Los Angeles, leaving Staples Center as the most outstanding player of the regional. He scored 50 points in wins against North Carolina and Arizona, making 16 of 26 shots, including six of 11 three-pointers.

Alongside Kaminsky, a first-team All-American, Dekker gave Wisconsin a double-trouble threat that was tough to cover.

Kaminsky is a seven-footer who moves less like his nickname "Tank" and more like an oversized ballerina.

Dekker adds shake-and-bake moves, net-splash accuracy from outside, and now, with his ankle healed, the ability to elevate on drives to the rim.

Dekker departed Los Angeles looking a first-round NBA pick.

"Sam was just playing out of his mind," senior forward Duje Dukan said of his teammate. "That was kind of what we were waiting to see."

Dekker didn't just score points. He took the important shots and made them look easy.

His game-clincher against Arizona was not a surprise to his teammates. Guard Traevon Jackson yelled "buckets" while Dekker's shot was in the air. Guard Josh Gasser was almost caught yawning.

"I've seen him make that play hundreds of times," Gasser said. "Not necessarily in games, but just in practice and open gyms throughout the summer. That's a shot he can make."

Dekker's moxie has earned him many admirers, including the most famous athlete in Wisconsin — Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

Dekker said he met Rodgers years ago at a convention. Rodgers has been among Dekker's biggest supporters, often texting him after games.

Rodgers followed Wisconsin to Los Angeles and celebrated on the court after the game. However, he declined to answer questions, preferring the spotlight to stay on Wisconsin's players.

"It's nice to be able to talk with someone who understands it," Dekker said of the relationship. "He's on a whole different level than me.… It's just nice to be able to talk to someone who knows what it's like to be an athlete.

"He's just a good friend. He's been through everything the last two years. If I'm not playing well, he'll tell me to keep my chin up.… And then when you play well, he lets me know how proud he is of me. It's cool to hear it from him."

Dekker may have to raise his game even higher for Saturday's national semifinal game against undefeated Kentucky in Indianapolis.

It's a rematch of a semifinal last year, in which Kentucky clipped Wisconsin by a point. Dekker scored 15 points.

"I still think about that game, once in a while, how close we were," Dekker said. "It kind of sticks to you. Why couldn't we have got that one? They kind of outwilled us for one possession. Whenever you lose, as a competitor, it's going to linger a bit."

The question now is how much longer he'll linger in college. Dekker may opt for the NBA.

Whenever he gets there, this year or next, you can expect big shots to follow.

He made his high school game-winner at Kohl Center, where Wisconsin plays its home games.

Dekker, any day at practice, can go to the spot on the floor where he became Sheboygan's hero. (Note: He is known to re-create that moment on request.)

Last Saturday, Dekker made his clutch three at Staples Center, home of the Lakers and Clippers.

There is a chance he'll be back to re-create that shot, too.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
68°