INDIANAPOLIS — A team stayed undefeated in the Final Four Saturday night. Sadly, for Kentucky, that team was Wisconsin.
The Badgers, a veteran team with unshakable resolve, had a 34-0 record this season when holding a lead with five or fewer minutes remaining in a game (117-3 in such situations since Feb. 3, 2011).
A clutch three-pointer by Sam Dekker put Wisconsin in such a situation against Kentucky with 1:41 left. The Badgers again closed the deal, beating previously undefeated Kentucky 71-64. With the victory, which avenged a national semifinal loss to Kentucky last season, Wisconsin will play Duke in the NCAA Tournament championship game Monday night.
In the immediate grip of defeat, Kentucky saw the loss as ruining a historic season of achievement.
"It really means nothing," Tyler Ulis said of Kentucky's final 38-1 record. "... It takes everything away. All the winning, to me, means nothing."
Assistant Coach John Robic had a simple explanation for such an all-is-lost reaction.
"It's the pain," he said.
Kentucky seemed in position to win. Trailing much of the game, the Cats took a 60-56 lead into the final five minutes.
But Wisconsin (36-3) wouldn't cooperate. So for the first time in semifinal rematches in consecutive years, the winner of the first game did not sweep as UCLA swept Houston in 1967 and 1968 and California swept Cincinnati in 1959 and 1960.
A controversial basket by Nigel Hayes enabled Wisconsin to tie it at 60-60 with 2:41 or 2:40 left. That one second made a difference because the former meant the shot beat the shot clock, the latter meant a shot-clock violation.
"It was a violation," Derek Willis said.
Robic agreed, but noted that the rules dictate that such a timing decision cannot be reviewed if the play occurs outside the final two minutes.
Dekker broke the tie with a three-pointer over Karl-Anthony Towns with 1:41 left.
The situation grew grim for Kentucky when Trey Lyles charged into Dekker trying to score on the post. When Andrew Harrison slumped his shoulders, UK Coach Jon Calipari bounded off the bench to scold Harrison, then quickly called for Tyler Ulis to enter the game.
Aaron Harrison's driving three-point play reduced UK's deficit to 64-63 with 56.2 seconds left.
But Wisconsin made eight of 10 free throws in the final 66 seconds to seal the victory.
All-American Frank Kaminsky led Wisconsin with 20 points and 11 rebounds. "You got the Player of the Year," Robic said of the Badgers. "And he played like it."
Dekker added 16.
Karl-Anthony Towns led Kentucky with 16. Andrew and Aaron Harrison added 13 and 12, respectively.
Kentucky trailed much of the first half. The deficit got as large as 23-14 when Josh Gasser posted up for a score with 9:16 left.
UK rallied around its defense. After making nine of its first 16 shots, Wisconsin went cold. The Badgers scored only one basket in the final six minutes until Bronson Koenig hit a jumper over Marcus Lee's outstretched hand in the final seconds to tie the halftime score at 36-36.
Kentucky excited its fans by scoring the game's first five points. A fast-break dunk by Cauley-Stein, always a crowd favorite, put the Cats ahead 5-0 49 seconds after the tip.
Wisconsin matched its four misses in the second half against Arizona in the West Region finals last weekend before the first television timeout.
The Badgers steadied themselves against UK's first wave of substitutes. Kaminsky and Dekker led the way as Wisconsin took its first lead at the 12:47 mark and expanded it.
By scoring 11 of UK's first 27 points, Andrew and Aaron Harrison kept Kentucky within range. The twins made eight of 10 shots and scored 18 points in the first half.
The Cats tied it at 32-32 on Aaron Harrison's three-point play with 2:03 left. That was the first time UK had not trailed since the 15:46 mark.
A fast-break dunk by Lyles put Kentucky ahead 36-34 with 32 seconds left. After a timeout, Wisconsin worked the clock and tied it on Koenig's jumper.
Wisconsin met its goal of containing Kentucky's lethal rebounding. "We need to somehow keep them at ease on the boards," Gasser said Friday.
Kentucky had only one offensive rebound and two second-chance points in the first half.
For only the ninth time all season, Kentucky trailed in the second half. A three-pointer by Hayes put Wisconsin ahead 43-40 with 18:09 left.
After UK regained the lead (Ulis picked Kaminsky's pocket and fed Towns for a dunk), the Badgers countered. Kaminsky and Dekker posted up for scores while being fouled. The latter put Kentucky behind 49-44 at the under-16 television timeout.
When Koenig hit a three-pointer, the Cats trailed 52-44 with 14:42 left. Wisconsin threatened to put UK behind by the biggest second-half margin of the season (the Cats trailed at Georgia by nine).
Instead, Kentucky used its second and third offensive rebounds to score on a third-chance opportunity. That snapped a 9-0 Wisconsin run.
After trailing for almost eight minutes, Kentucky tied it on Towns' layup off a pick-and-roll, then took a 58-56 lead when Aaron Harrison made a heavily contested layup.
Towns hit the boards hard in a stretch that saw Kentucky not only regain the lead but expand it to 60-56. Towns converted another third-chance opportunity with a post-up that put the Cats ahead by four with 6:36 left.
Neither team was pulling away as everyone settled in for another set of dramatic final minutes between Kentucky and Wisconsin.