In a heartbreaking finish, the Wisconsin Badgers fell to the Kentucky Wildcats, 74-73, ending a national championship run for the Wisconsin hopeful.
A close contest throughout, Kentucky gained the edge on an Aaron Harrison three-pointer for the third straight tournament game.
It was fitting the game came down to the final moments, as it was a hard-fought contest throughout, with some unlikely faces stepping up for the Badgers.
Heading into the matchup, Kentucky may have made headlines for starting the first group of five freshman in the Final Four since the “Fab Five” from Michigan achieved the same feat in 1991, but a Wisconsin freshman was the story of the first half.
Coming off the bench in relief of starting point guard Jackson, who quickly accrued a pair of quick (and questionable) blocking fouls, freshman Bronson Koenig had a stellar showing in the first half, scoring 11 points while Jackson sat on the bench.
The Badgers, playing most of the first half without Jackson or Nigel Hayes, who each had two fouls, went into the break leading 40-36. Sam Dekker scored 12 points in the first half, including an 8-of-8 performance from the free throw line.
Wisconsin found itself scrambling in the second half, as Kentucky stormed out of the locker room and, after a Dekker three pointer, went on a 15-0 run to take a 51-43 lead.
Kentucky’s scoring run was ended by another unlikely Wisconsin player, as Duje Dukan scored Wisconsin’s next five points, sparking a 15-4 run for the Badgers, putting Wisconsin up 58-55. Dukan finished the game with eight points, five rebounds, and two assists.
The teams continued to trade baskets until a Frank Kaminsky offensive rebound put-back tied the game at 71-71 with just over a minute on the clock.
With 16 seconds remaining and the game still tied at 71-71, Jackson pump-faked and forced a foul from three point range. Jackson missed the first free throw, Wisconsin’s first miss from the charity stripe the entire game, but hit the next two to put Wisconsin up 73-71.
Kentucky set up its offense, and Aaron Harrison quickly knocked down a contested three to put Kentucky back on top, 74-73. Josh Gasser had a hand in his face, but Harrison had enough space to knock down the three on his first attempt of the game.
With less than six seconds left on the clock, Jackson took the inbounds pass, dribbled up the court, created some space and elevated for a mid-range jumper off the left side of the lane, but the shot rimmed out and Kentucky survived to advance to the championship game.
Dekker and Ben Brust each scored 15 for Wisconsin, followed by Jackson with 12, Koenig with 11, and Dukan and Kaminsky with eight each.
Kentucky utilized its strength and athleticism in the paint, scoring all but six of its 74 points from inside the three point arc. The Wildcats out-rebounded Wisconsin 32-27. The Wildcats were also able to minimize Kaminsky’s impact, holding him to his lowest scoring total of the tournament since the opening round blowout over American.
The loss ended a stellar tournament run for Wisconsin, who, as the two-seed, opened with a win over #15 American, then defeated #7 Oregon, #6 Baylor, and #1 Arizona.
Kentucky will take on Connecticut Monday night in the National Championship game.