Sunday, April 6, 2014

Badgers' loss a particularly bitter pill to swallow

What is worse—losing in a blow-out, when long before the game ends you are psychologically prepared for the inevitable, or in heartbreaking fashion in the final moments, when the outcome is decided on one play? In the first instance, Florida Gator fans had to know long before the final buzzer that the Connecticut Huskies had thoroughly out-played their team, who would win the NCAA national semifinal game 63-53. But at least they had the consolation of recent memories of back-to-back NCAA basketball championships. They’ve been here before, and will likely be back again.

In the second instance, when the rare occurrence arises when the Wisconsin Badgers are serious contenders to win a national championship—only to lose on a three-point basket in the closing seconds—it is impossible not to have a bitter emotional response. This was one of those "golden" opportunities that the team had a hold of, but simply could not hold on to.

Wisconsin would lose by one point to Kentucky 74-73, falling one game short of a shot at the national championship, for one glaring reason: They did not “protect” the glass. The Badgers outplayed the Wildcats from beyond the three-point arc and at the free throw line, outscoring them 43 to 20. But that advantage was erased by Kentucky scoring an appalling 23 points off 11 offensive rebounds. Wisconsin’s three-point shooting and deadly accuracy (at least until the end) at the charity stripe made-up for being dominated inside--so much so that 7-foot Frank Kaminsky was a non-factor until late in the game--but in the end not enough to overcome rebounding and defensive lapses. 

Those second-chance points allowed Kentucky to erase a nine-point deficit in the first half, and take an eight-point lead after a 13-0 run early in the second half. Yet Wisconsin proved once again that their deliberate style could compete with the Wildcat’s five-star athletes, erasing that lead in little more than two minutes and eventually taking a five-point lead with six minutes to play. But as it had all game, momentum again shifted in favor of Kentucky. With game tied at 69, the Badgers lost opportunities with turnovers on consecutive possessions. 

Kaminsky, who after scoring 28 points in the victory over Arizona, but was held to just 2 points for first 32 minutes in this game, finally came alive in time to keep Wisconsin in the game, scoring six of their nine points in a late push. His put-back after a Traevon Jackson miss tied the game at 71 with 1:18 left. But as in the Arizona game, as the minutes were winding down once again it was Jackson trying to be the hero, missing his last four shots. His three-point miss with 16 seconds to play, however, was nullified by a Kentucky foul, and Jackson hit two free throws to give Wisconsin a 73-71  lead. 

Unfortunately, Jackson’s first of three attempts misfired—the only free-throw out of twenty attempts that the Badgers missed all night. It turned out to be difference in the game, as Aaron Harrison did what he did against Louisville and Michigan—make that improbable three-pointer late, this time with 5.7 seconds left, which in this game was the only one he attempted.

This is a very hard thing to take for Badger fans, almost unfair. Kentucky’s seeding after stumbling during the regular season suggested that they were not expected to advance past the second round. Yet a run of last second victories wrecked the hopes of teams that had played more consistently well during the season. I can’t say I'm much interested in the finals now, although unlike Kentucky, the seventh-seeded Connecticut has at least won their games over supposedly superior opponents in convincing fashion, and no team has won the championship after having as low a combined margin of victory as Kentucky has had in this tournament.

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