ANAHEIM, Calif. — You knew it wouldn’t be easy for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team to get to the Final Four.
After 13 years of seeing their NCAA tournament journey halted short of its destination, the Badgers looked like they might need some help from above — or from below or, quite frankly, from anywhere they could get it — to find their way back to college basketball’s promised land for the first time since 2000.
For a while, there were signs that second-seeded UW might be getting some assistance as it prepared for its Elite Eight matchup against top-seeded Arizona and its legion of raucous fans on Saturday night at the Honda Center.
It certainly looked like an act of God when, the night before the game, an earthquake measuring 5.1 on the Richter Scale hit the Anaheim area. Was that a sign that they were going to shake up the brackets with an upset of the Wildcats?
There was also the specter of UW coach Bo Ryan’s late father somewhere up there pulling a few strings to help his son get a monkey off his back and reach a Final Four for the first time on what would have been Butch Ryan’s 90th birthday.
Finally, there was Arizona’s record in Elite Eight games at the Honda Center. The Wildcats were 0-3 in such games since the program’s ascension as a national power in the 1980s.
But just when it looked like someone was lending a hand, the truth came out. UW didn’t need the help. In a classic struggle that will be remembered more for its ferocity than its skill, the Badgers had the talent, the tenacity and the big man — center Frank Kaminsky — to outlast the Wildcats 64-63 in overtime.
UW survived a shaky first half and a late replay review that went against it, then its surprisingly tough defense forced Wildcats guard Nick Johnson to use up so much time he couldn’t even get off an attempt at a game-winning shot before the final buzzer sounded. Once it went off, it was a signal that Ryan and the Badgers had earned a long-coveted trip to the Final Four in the Dallas suburb of Arlington, Texas.
“This means the world to all of us,” forward Sam Dekker said. “This is what we come here for. We told each other at the beginning of the year, ‘We can go to Dallas. We’ve got the team to do it.’ We just bought in and did this together. It doesn’t matter who gets the shot, it doesn’t matter who plays well, as long as we get a W. And that’s what happened.”
The game figured to be a defensive war between two of the nation’s best teams, and that’s exactly what it was.
Arizona began the season with 21 straight victories, was ranked No. 1 for eight weeks and came into the game with a 32-4 record. UW won its first 16 games and climbed to as high as third in the polls before experiencing a brief slump, but it had won 12 of its last 14 games.
Saturday’s game went back and forth in the second half and overtime, with coaching reputations and the trip to the Final Four on the line. Those two results were connected, by the way. Ryan and Arizona’s Sean Miller were being called the two best coaches in the country who had never been to a Final Four.
It is ludicrous that a coach’s entire career can be judged on one or two plays at the end of regulation or overtime in an NCAA game between No. 1 and 2 seeds, but that’s just how it is these days. This time, it was Ryan who broke through at long last.
“What a game,” UW athletic director Barry Alvarez said amid the postgame celebration on the floor. “Both teams played hard, competed. We really couldn’t be more proud of those kids, the coaches, Bo. What an effort.”
As for those critics who have complained that Ryan couldn’t win on college basketball’s biggest stage and reach the Final Four, Alvarez had a message.
“They can be quiet now,” he said. “We won’t have to hear it anymore.”
No, we don’t. And even though Ryan choked up when asked if his father, who died in August after accompanying Ryan to Final Fours for decades, was watching from above, this heartwarming victory wasn’t the result of earthquakes or fate or even Butch Ryan tugging on imaginary strings. This was about a group of players and coaches who went out and made it happen.
“They’re just resilient; they never quit,” associate head coach Greg Gard said. “They’re just like their head coach. They just keep battling and battling and battling and they just keep finding a way. We didn’t play great tonight, but we kept finding a way to get things done.”
That was true even at the end, when a team that had been criticized for its defense needed one stop to go to the Final Four. UW found a way to get that stop, creating a special moment and killing many of the program’s demons in the process.
“We tried to do that,” Dekker said. “We wanted to get there. We said we weren’t satisfied. We had a lot of goals and this was one of them. Now we’ve got one more to get.”
That, of course, would be a national championship.