ARLINGTON, Texas – The buzzer sounded and Traevon Jackson dropped into a squatting position.
As Kentucky players sprinted past him and began celebrating, all the junior point guard for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team could do was stare at the court.
“It just didn’t make sense,” Jackson said later inside a somber locker room. “It didn’t make sense at all.”
It wasn’t supposed to end like this for these Badgers, who weren't content with helping coach Bo Ryan finally get over the hump and to a Final Four. They arrived in North Texas feeling like they had more to accomplish.
But the giant video board at AT&T Stadium didn’t lie late Saturday night, no matter how unbelievable the outcome was as Jackson and his teammates read it with tear-filled eyes: Kentucky 74, UW 73.
The Wildcats (29-10) will be playing for a national title on Monday night against Connecticut because they made one more play than the Badgers. A back-and-forth slugfest ended with Jackson missing a pullup jumper after Kentucky had taken a lead on a 3-pointer by freshman guard Aaron Harrison with 5.7 seconds remaining.
Jackson wasn’t the only UW player having difficulty making sense of it all after the Badgers’ magical season ended with 30 victories and eight defeats, none more heartbreaking than this one.
“I thought we should have won the game,” UW junior guard Josh Gasser. “I still think we’re better. I think we could have easily won that game. They’re really, really good, and we’re really, really good. It’s a one-possession, and we’ve got to give them a lot of respect.”
The respect was mutual.
“Let’s just say this now,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “They did everything they could to win, and we make a ridiculous shot.”
UW coach Bo Ryan said he was proud of his team and pointed out that, while the focus will be on the final minute of the game, there were many possessions in the first 39 minutes that were just as crucial in determining the outcome.
But the Badgers, particularly Jackson, are going to have a difficult time getting the final 16.4 seconds out of their minds.
That’s how much time was left when Jackson drew a foul on a 3-point shot attempt with the score tied. He missed his first attempt – UW was 17 of 17 from the free throw line to that point – but made the next two to give the Badgers a 73-71 lead.
There was little doubt that Harrison was going to take the final shot for Kentucky. He had hit big shots in the final minute to beat Louisville in the Sweet 16 and Michigan in the Elite Eight, and Harrison added to his growing collection of clutch moments before a crowd of 79,444.
Gasser was guarding Harrison, one of the many Wildcats who excel at attacking with dribble penetration. Instead of trying to take the ball to the basket, Harrison released a deep 3-pointer from the left wing that went in and made him a hero for the third consecutive game.
“That’s what he was doing all game,” Gasser said. “He hadn’t hit a shot from the perimeter all game … and didn’t really look to, either. I was just trying to do whatever I could to not let him score. I contested it well, I thought, he just made a nice shot.”
There was also little doubt that Jackson was going to take the final shot for the Badgers. He loves the big moment and has delivered in clutch situations throughout his career, but this time Jackson’s pull-up jumper from 15 feet was too long.
For a brief moment, it appeared it might go in off the glass but it hit the rim and fell harmlessly to the court.
“I got hit on my arm and I kind of had to adjust in the air and that’s why I hit the backboard,” Jackson said. “But I can’t make any excuses. You’ve got to make better plays in that opportunity. It just didn’t go in.”
Ultimately, the biggest reason for the defeat wasn’t that missed shot or Jackson's earlier missed free throw. It also wasn’t because of Harrison’s clutch 3-pointer.
It was because the athletic Wildcats imposed their will on the Badgers in the paint.
Freshman guard James Young scored 17 points and freshman forward Julius Randle added 16 for Kentucky, which scored 46 points in the paint.
The Badgers had a difficult time keeping the Wildcats in front of them, a problem area for Ryan's team at times this season. That left UW’s post players scrambling to help and left the tall and talented Kentucky post players in position to gobble 11 offensive rebounds that the Wildcats converted into 23 points.
“It was pretty physical out there,” UW sophomore forward Sam Dekker said. "They’ve got some big guys and they move bodies. You’ve got to be able to fight, you’ve got to have that toughness, mental and physical, and many times in this game they out-toughed us and got the second-chance opportunities, got those big dunks and really swung momentum.”
Afterward, camera lights shining in their faces and tape recorders hovering around them, the Badgers were still having difficulty making sense of the gut-wrenching defeat that cost them a shot to play for a national title.
“They’re hot right now,” Kaminsky said of the Wildcats, who have defeated four of the top 13 overall seeds in the NCAA tournament to advance to the final as a No. 8 seed. “They’re playing great basketball. They had a lot of things clicking for them on offense.
“It just sucks that they made that last play. That’s a shot that’s going to stick …. in all of our minds the rest of our lives.”