Stars send Wisconsin to Final Four

LOS ANGELES -- The two embraced. Briefly.

Following Wisconsin's 85-78 victory over Arizona in the Elite Eight on Saturday at Staples Center, which elevated the Badgers to their second consecutive Final Four appearance, Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky held one another the way men do when they finally feel the validation for the depleted reservoirs, wet jerseys and battered bodies they've sacrificed across a five-month, chaotic season.

Kaminsky draped his arms around Dekker, who rested on his buddy's collarbone and smiled.

"I said 'Let's go get a title,'" Dekker said. "He told me he was proud of me. You know, he's been carrying us all year. We're two great friends. It's great to be on this ride with him and the 15 other guys on this team, too."

Kaminsky pushed the Badgers up the hill in the first half, and Dekker hooked a rope to that doggone truck and hauled it the rest of the way. On a stage that lacks sympathy for rough nights, the stars direct the narratives. And this tale will end for Wisconsin in the Final Four again because Dekker, Kaminksy and a collection of shooters willed it.

Kaminsky scored 29 points, one more than his final sum from last year's Elite Eight win over Arizona, even though the Wildcats forced him to play through three different defenders and a fleet of helpers.

"You get him the ball, usually good things happen," Josh Gasser said. "The good thing about that is it's not always for himself. It's for his teammates. He's a great passer. He's very unselfish. He just knows how to make plays. And he demands the ball, which is great. If you don't pass it to him, he'll tell you, 'Pass me the ball,' and that's what you want in a star player and a national player of the year. I love him. He's a great teammate."

Dekker finished with 27 points. With 17.6 seconds to play, he arched a shot over Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. As the rock floated -- when you're on a team that makes 79 percent of its shots in the second half, the ball seeks the rim -- Dekker hopped four times on his left leg and then strut the sideline as Green Bay Packers star Aaron Rodgers cheered from the crowd.

"I just wanted to be aggressive out of the gates," Dekker said.

The rematch. That was the story.

Arizona, backed by thousands of Wildcats fans, had won the chance to fight Wisconsin again a year after a controversial offensive foul call against Nick Johnson in the final seconds ended its 2013-14 campaign in a 64-63 overtime loss to the Badgers in the Elite Eight.

The pregame chatter centered on Arizona's hope for revenge, so it was easy to forget about the shot.

Last year, Gasser closed out on Aaron Harrison as the Kentucky standout nailed a late 3-pointer to dismiss Wisconsin from the Final Four. That monkey sat on Wisconsin's back and flicked its ear for a year. The Badgers never got over that. Never thought that a trip to the Final Four was enough. And after Kentucky beat Notre Dame on Saturday, a rematch with the Wildcats is set.

A national title. That's what they wanted. That's what they want.

So Saturday was bigger than Arizona. The Badgers had business in Indianapolis that they would not give L.A. a shot to ruin.

"I'm feeling a lot of emotion right now," Gasser said. "Obviously, we're excited to be here. It's just almost disbelief. Like everything's gone the way we wanted it to."

In Arizona's locker room, confusion and sadness were mixed into a somber concoction that planted each player deep into his stall, searching for the immediate elixirs that never arrive. Not even years later.

"I'm just like 'What's going on?" Stanley Johnson, who was limited in the second half after he was poked in the eye, said about Wisconsin's crippling run midway through the second half. "We're down, we're up. I'm trying to figure out what's going on."

Hollis-Jefferson defended Dekker and Kaminsky. Brandon Ashley's early foul trouble minimized his time. Kaleb Tarczewski's limited mobility hindered his plot to stop Kaminsky. So Hollis-Jefferson, spry and agile, tried to shadow the duo throughout the night.

He stared at the ground after the game. He paused. He only looked up for a moment. How does one lift his head with that weight on his neck?

"It's tough," Hollis-Jefferson said. "One minute I'm on Frank, then Sam's going off. And then I gotta switch to Sam and Frank's going off. I mean, I can't guard both players. It's pretty much a tough situation we were in. We didn't have answer."

There were ropes in place to control the crowd and separate family and friends from the reporters and photographers who'd gathered on the court after the final buzzer.

Dekker and Rodgers hugged as Badgers fans cheered the final result. The team's "2015 Regional Champions" hats were fashionable and popular. Every Badgers supporter had one, it seemed.

Patrick Herb, the team's sports information director, asked Kaminsky to pacify the media scrum that had formed along the perimeter of the court during Wisconsin's postgame celebration. Kaminsky, who had a GoPro camera strapped to his chest, refused.

"No," Kaminsky told Herb, "I don't want to."

Kaminsky spoke with the media from the dais minutes later, but he wanted to inhale that moment on the Staples Center floor.

The one he and his teammates had earned.

The one they'd created.


"Adding Brandon, bringing Stanley in, we definitely thought we would be ready and for the most part, I would say we were ready in the first half," Hollis-Jefferson said. "Second half, we didn't have an answer. [Kaminsky's] other guys got going. The rest is history."