How annoying it is to play Wisconsin could be seen by the way guard Zak Showalter went about his business Thursday.
The Badgers got a career-best from Sam Dekker. Center Frank Kaminsky continued to be a load. Star Traevon Jackson, back from two months off with a fractured foot, even chipped in.
But what made North Carolina wince was Showalter, a former walk-on, a mug, a guy who seems to have a permanent five o'clock shadow. He turned on the switch in the Badgers' 79-72 victory that sent them into Saturday's NCAA West Regional final against Arizona.
When it was over, the Wisconsin players, flanked by Bucky Badger on the left and cheerleaders on the right, sang the alma mater. Appropriately, they swayed together.
“It's great to have so many voices understanding what needs to happen and what we need to do on the court,” Kaminsky said.
Showalter was the poster boy for that. The 6-foot-2 guard scored just six points. All came in a two-minute burst that gave the Badgers (34-3) a 63-60 lead they never relinquished.
It was a reminder of the bad penny the Badgers have become. You just can't get rid of them. The Tar Heels (26-12) tried, and seemed to be in control, leading 57-54 with eight minutes left.
“We knew we had one run left,” Wisconsin guard Bronson Koenig said.
When it was over, all North Carolina basketball fans had to look forward to was months of reading about the academic scandal swirling around the program.
The Badgers, meanwhile, got an A for effort.
“We know what it takes to win games at the end,” said Kaminksy, who scored 15 of his 19 points in the second half.
Thursday it took Showalter.
He scored on a layup. After a Kaminsky three-pointer he scored on another to give Wisconsin a 61-60 lead. Showalter capped his moment with a steal and a laborious journey up the court for a layup.
“I cramped up in both legs as I was dribbling down the court,” Showalter said. “That was the slowest fastbreak I have ever been on. I thought I was going to die.”
The Badgers were off on a 25-15 run to end the game. They are one victory from a second consecutive appearance in the Final Four.
“You take our guys, they are committed,” Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan said. “The difference between involved and committed. You sit down to breakfast with bacon and eggs, you know looking at the eggs that the chicken was involved. You look at the bacon and you know the pig was committed.”
Everyone seemed to take a turn.
Dekker kept the Badgers close in the first half, scoring 15 of his career-high 23 points. Jackson made his first appearance since Jan. 11 and tossed in a three-pointer seconds after entering the game.
The Tar Heels seemed to be the team in a comfort zone. Brice Johnson and Justin Jackson, who both finished 15 points, scored whenever they wanted. But the Tar Heels looked up at halftime to see they had only a 33-31 lead.
“Coming out of halftime,” Kaminsky said, “no one wanted to go home.”
North Carolina was shooting 54% from the field midway through the second half. Wisconsin clamped down. The Tar Heels made only three of their last 15 shots.
Kaminsky labored through the first half, making two of seven shots. He made three of four and made all eight of his free throws in the second half.
Koenig, who missed his first six shots, sank two three-pointers. Josh Gasser was one for three from the field until sinking a three-pointer for a 68-64 lead.
Wisconsin made all eight of its free throws in the last 40 seconds to hold off the Tar Heels, who hung close thanks to two three-pointers by Marcus Paige.
“Having the confidence that we can turn it on when we need it,” Gasser said, “that's what it's all about.”