Sam Dekker starts fast: Sam Dekker, Frank Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes combined to score 109 points and grab 47 rebounds in their team's first two NCAA tournament games. But in the first half Thursday, Hayes and Kaminsky went 3-for-13 from the field and registered nine points combined. Enter Dekker. The NBA prospect kept the Badgers alive before halftime by scoring 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting before the break. He was the only Wisconsin player who seemed undaunted by North Carolina's length and athleticism in the first half.
Brice Johnson sets the tone: When asked about Kennedy Meeks' injury on Wednesday, Roy Williams said he needed multiple players to step up if Meeks couldn't go. Well, Meeks started the game, but the Tar Heels still needed someone to give them some early energy and production against the Badgers. Johnson did that. He kicked off the game with two monster dunks that drew big cheers from the North Carolina fans at Staples Center. By halftime, he was leading North Carolina with eight points (4-for-6) and a block.
Kaminsky's early struggles: Kaminsky, who finished with 19 points, was just 2-for-7 from the field in the first half. He struggled against North Carolina's length inside. Whenever he touched the ball, UNC had him well covered. Meeks, Joel James and even Justin Jackson were effective in their attempts to shadow the likely Wooden Award winner. He started the second half by making his first two shots, but the Tar Heels continued to harass him. They were clearly going to force another Wisconsin player to beat them.
The ACC helped: From mid-January to mid-March, North Carolina failed to register a signature win. The Tar Heels still entered the NCAA tournament with some momentum based on their finish in the ACC tournament. But their regular season was a roller-coaster ride. Still, the ACC's gantlet put the Tar Heels through a variety of tests that helped them prepare for a matchup against the Big Ten's best team. There is a mental element to this game, especially when you're the underdog. North Carolina wasn't intimidated by the moment, and that was vital as the Heels built up a lead against the Badgers in the second half.
But in the end Wisconsin was too strong. The Badgers are resilient. Dekker played like a top-20 pick. Guys such as Zak Showalter made key plays. Wisconsin isn't a team. It's a program. It came together in a difficult stretch, relied on its experience and overcame a good North Carolina team that should be proud of its effort.