Sam Dekker scored a career-high 23 points and grabbed 10 rebounds as top-seeded Wisconsin defeated fourth-seeded UNC 79-72 Thursday night to head back to the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight for the second consecutive year, playing the winner of No. 2 seed Arizona versus sixth-seeded Xavier on Saturday.
Senior Player of the Year candidate Frank Kamisnky added 19 points and eight boards for Wisconsin, making all eight free throws he attempted. The Badgers attempted 23 free throws as a team, making 20 of them and their final eight down the stretch.
With the score 60-56 in favor of the Tar Heels and just seven minutes remaining in the game, Wisconsin went on a 9-0 run to take a lead it would not relinquish the rest of the way.
UNC, however, did not go down quietly as junior Marcus Paige hit back-to-back 3-pointers to cut the lead to 71-70 with 54 seconds left. Paige finished with 12 points, and was one of three Tar Heels to finish the game with double-digits. Forwards Brice Johnson and Justin Jackson each ended the contest with 15.
Head coach Roy Williams said he was “tired of congratulating people” but admired the toughness his team exhibited on this night.
“Well, you have to congratulate Wisconsin. I think the toughness that they showed today was really something,” Williams said regarding his team’s effort. “It’s strange, the difference between winning and losing is so small.
“We had J.P. on the breakaway, not a breakaway, but open court, and we didn’t convert on that one. Then they came back and scored nine in a row.”
Despite drilling 61 percent of their shots from beyond the arc, Williams’ squad could not sustain the pressure from the Badgers, who only shot 33 percent from downtown. Both teams attempted 56 shots total, and each shot 46 percent from the field.
When asked what guard Josh Gasser was doing to limit his offensive opportunities, Paige agreed with his coach and acknowledged Gasser’s competitive edge on the defensive side of the ball.
“Well, like coach said, he was just competing,” Paige said. “Every possession he understood how important it was for him to take that challenge today to guard me. He chased me around every screen. Every time I caught the ball he was right there.”
Going into the second half with a two-point lead, Wisconsin was able to turn it on offensively, led by efforts from Dekker and Kaminsky.
“Our defensive pressure is something we talked about coming into this game. We wanted to pressure them and not allow them to be comfortable, and we did that for the most part,” Paige said.
“The problem was we couldn’t finish our defense on key possessions. You know, they got a tip-out or offensive rebound and that’s how they made us pay today. They would kick it out and make a three, or run another 35 seconds off the clock.”
Jackson, who was tasked with guarding Kaminsky, was able to limit his chances in the opening 20 minutes, but they could not keep Dekker off the scoresheet. Instead, the junior embraced being given many chances, ending with a career-best in points.
“No, not at all. Obviously he’s a great player. We had some lapses in there, but good players are going to get theirs,” Jackson said regarding the play of Dekker.
Despite the trouble that Williams’ team went through off the court, the coach recognized the bond his players had, which helped him make this season an enjoyable one.
“You know, the bond that you have. Coach Alvarez knows this too, the bond that you have with your players is the strongest, stronger than anything there is, I thin,” he said.
“Even when they’re knuckle heads, you still have that bond. And when you coach kids, you give them everything you can give them. Today it wasn’t enough. But I wouldn’t trade my kids for anybody. And Bo’s got a great group, and Bo’s team won the game, but I wouldn’t trade my kids for anybody’s.”