Apr 4, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Wisconsin Badgers celebrate as Kentucky Wildcats forward Willie Cauley-Stein (15) walks off the court as they upset Kentucky 71-64 in the 2015 NCAA Men
It was a play that haunted the dreams of many a Wisconsin player and fan this past offseason. Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison hit a cold-blooded, go-ahead 3-pointer over the outstretched arm of Josh Gasser to end the Badgers’ season in the Final Four last year.
That play brought Wisconsin’s magical run in the 2014 NCAA Tournament to a bitter, heartbreaking end, as the Badgers fell just a single point shy of reaching the national championship game for the first time since 1941.
Though this moment was utterly soul-crushing for UW fans and players, the team brought back nearly everyone for this season, causing expectations to be as high as they’ve ever been for the Badgers heading into the year. Though Wisconsin players tried to leave the memory of Harrison’s dagger behind and focus on the lofty goals they set for themselves this season, they admit that they used that crushing loss to the Wildcats as a means of motivation during the offseason.
“I think that loss last year motivated us through the offseason so we could get back here,” senior forward Frank Kaminsky said after Saturday’s win. “Once the season started, we had our own goals in mind.”
Though they faced expectations at levels that no other UW men’s basketball team ever had, the Badgers proved to be up to the task, winning both the Big Ten regular season and conference tournament titles, setting a school record for wins and earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history.
Wisconsin didn’t slow down once March Madness rolled around, as they successfully ran the gauntlet through the West Region, defeating Coastal Carolina, Oregon, North Carolina and Arizona to set the stage for a rematch in Indianapolis against the team that shattered their dreams a year ago.
Though some of the same players remained, this was far from the same Kentucky team that the Badgers faced last time around in Arlington, Texas. The Wildcats, of course, entered the game 38-0 and looking to become the first Division I team to finish the season undefeated since Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers did so during their 1975-76 campaign.
But by the time the dust settled at Lucas Oil Stadium, the Badgers had accomplished what no other team had been able to this season, and Kentucky was left 38-and-done.
Kaminsky showed why he’s the national player of the year, recording a double-double with 20 points and 11 rebounds, both game highs. Meanwhile, Sam Dekker continued his sensational play in the NCAA Tournament, dropping 16 points and coming up clutch down the stretch. Though it wasn’t as dramatic as Harrison’s triple from last year, Dekker did bury a three with under two minutes remaining that put UW ahead for good.
That shot was part of the Badgers’ 15-4 run to end the game, a run that followed a seven-minute stretch during which they didn’t score a single field goal. But Wisconsin didn’t waver and remained resilient like it has so many times this season, calmly hitting several free throws in the waning minutes of the game to seal the deal.
The ultimate moment of catharsis for the Badgers came in the final seconds, when Harrison, the hero in Kentucky win’s in 2014, fouled out. The significance of the victory was quite evident, with images like that of Duje Dukan putting his arm around an emotional Traevon Jackson on the bench in the game’s final moments highlighting Wisconsin’s incredible win.
Though the players quickly shifted their focus to Duke (who handed the Badgers one of their three losses this season), there’s no questioning how important Saturday night’s triumph was to them. Wisconsin’s hard work had put itself in a position to exact revenge, and it capitalized on that opportunity.
Kentucky’s pursuit of perfection fell short and the Badgers came full circle from the heartbreak of one season ago, leaving them on the cusp of winning a national title for the first time in 74 years.