ARLINGTON, Texas - A little softer bounce off the glass wouldn't have caused the tears to run down the cheeks of so many players inside the University of Wisconsin locker room. A better bounce here or there over the final three minutes would have meant the Badgers would be playing for their first national title in 73 years.
The end to the magical ride was going to come this weekend regardless for Wisconsin, but the Badgers just assumed it would have ended better than this. In reality, any other scenario would have been better than the one they had to endure.
In a game in which neither team led by more than nine points and the second half resembled more of a heavyweight title fight than the national semifinals, Wisconsin's final six seconds saw Aaron Harrison's game-winning 3-pointer go through the net and Traevon Jackson's potential winner bounce away. That was the recipe for the 74-73 heartbreaking loss to Kentucky they were coping with as they sulked to the locker room, away from the NCAA-record 79,444 fans at AT&T Stadium who had witnessed a classic.
"You're agonizingly close to making history, and then it's over," said assistant coach Gary Close. "It will hurt for awhile."
Kentucky (29-10) will face Connecticut in the national finals Monday night. The seventh-seeded Huskies (31-8) broke Florida's 30-game winning streak by holding the tournament's overall number one seed to 38.8 percent shooting and just 10 percent from 3-point range.
Wisconsin (30-8) was in prime position to represent the right side of the bracket, had Jackson hit the same kind of shot he has been known to make throughout his entire career. The stage was set for him because of Harrison – one of Kentucky's five freshman starters – hit that a deep 3-pointer with 5.7 seconds left.
It was hard to stomach, considering Jackson went 2-for-3 from the foul line seconds earlier – the only free-throw miss on 20 attempts for UW – and Josh Gasser, Wisconsin's best defensive player, was right there defending.
"Obviously it was a huge dagger," said Duje Dukan, who scored eight points off the bench in the second half to reinvigorate UW. "It's a blow to your confidence and everything. When you are working so hard, you're up two and really the game is in your hands, you just have to play solid defense. The kid hit a hell of a shot."
"It looked like he was going to drive it," added a red-eyed Gasser, "kind of pulled it right in the face and made a tough shot."
Driving up the floor with time ticking down, Jackson got the separation he wanted from Harrison but his attempt off the glass was a touch too hard, bouncing off the right side of the rim and toward the court as the horn sounded and the Wildcats' dog-piled at center court.
"It's tough because I still feel like we didn't play as well as we could have played," said Jackson, as the blood on the shorts identified the physicality of the night. "You can look back on a lot of things and wish we did something different."
"I thought it was going to be good as I went up in the air. I had to adjust because I got hit in my arm, but I still felt it was good coming off my hands."
UW hung with a group of future professionals by staying aggressive, going 19-for-20 from the free throw line and outscoring the Wildcats by 18 from beyond the 3-point arc.
"We played well, but we didn't play well enough to win," said Frank Kaminsky.
Those areas, according to Kaminsky and his teammates, in which UW fell short extended beyond the final seconds.
Kentucky averages 14.6 offensive rebounds per game, and while the Badgers held them to 11, the Wildcats grabbed seven of them in the second half – including five on a 15-0 run early in the half to jump back in the game. Kentucky finished with 23 second-chance points and 46 points in the paint.
"We just didn't play well enough on the inside," said Kaminsky. "They were able to get things we weren't giving up this whole tournament. It just sucks it happened at this time on this biggest stage. We would have liked to set the tone physically more."
The Badgers might have changed the tide had they been the recipient of a charge call. A staple of its stingy defense, Wisconsin didn't draw any charges that could have caused some hesitation from the Wildcats' vaunted lineup. They simply put their heads down and headed for the paint.
"We tried to get some charges," said senior Ben Brust. "We could have probably used getting one to slow them a little bit."
UW also missed out on some bounces that had been in its favor for long stretches. While the Badgers committed just eight turnovers for the entire game, they committed two on back-to-back possessions with the score tied at 69. UW also had a 4:44 scoring drought early in the second half that spurred a 15-0 Kentucky run to give the Wildcats their biggest lead of the game.
But like Wisconsin had done so many times this season, it found a way to battle back. Dukan broke the drought with a tip-in off an offensive rebound and then hit a 3-pointer on the next possession. Those buckets started a run in which UW made 9 of 10 attempts, and saw neither team built a lead greater than four points during the final 14 minutes.
That's what made the finish so hard to stomach for a team that felt they had a realistic chance to win their third two-game tournament in as many weeks."I'm proud of them now, there's no question about that," said UW coach Bo Ryan. "It speaks for itself."