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.

Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com or 608-252-6172.

Sports Columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal

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(22) comments

w8rh3wk5
w8rh3wk5

There is no reason not to believe that UW can win the tourney. This has been a great season and very happy for Bo b/c he is a great coach. He will now be graded up near the top with the other great coaches b/c he has that Final Four on his resume. There is no question he needed it for his coaching legacy. Too many underperforming ncaa tourney runs hampered him in comparisons to the other elite coaches in his era. This year will help alleviate that.

UWBone24
UWBone24

Agree 100%

w8rh3wk5
w8rh3wk5

Believe me even before this run, I thought very highly of Bo. However it's incredibly difficult to compare him to the likes of Izzo, Coach K, Williams, Self, Calipari, Patino, Donovan, Boehiem, Calhoun, etc.

This final four run helps validate what he did in D3 ball b/c now he can show he has done it in D1. Before this run, Bo could only be compared with the likes of OBbrien, Dixon, Miller brothers, Crean, Hoiberg, Bieleim, Smart, Stevens, etc.

pjh16
pjh16

I can't believe that some of the posters here are trying to compare apples to...a'holes...but then again you'll always try...give credit where it is due...a great year by Bo and the entire team and I hope they go all the way...let's have fun at Jerry's house where the last time we brought home the championship...Go Badgers!!!

Pat McB
Pat McB

We wanted this one for Bo. So happy for Bo and the team - their hard work is rewarded. What a coach able group!
Bo - Butch is so proud and happy! What a birthday present you delivered!! You are an Ace!
Congratulations!
All Badger fans are ecstatic today.

dave from monona
dave from monona

Boe can now say: Have been to the mountain top, but now let’s win it. Boe legacy has now been cemented in history, so hope it is not just a one, and done. Butch is looking down, and smiling. @Dave_FromMonona

seered
seered

When you believe good things happen. The team, the coaches, and the fans all believed this could be the year. And here we go!

w8rh3wk5
w8rh3wk5

As a so called "Bo hater", this win last night was important. While it might not be fair, coaches ARE judged based on ncaa tourney performances. In college bball, the regular season is diminished greatly bc 68 teams make the tourney and for a team like UW finish the big ten conference season with a winning record and you are in the ncaa tourney.

The criticism has been stated before (no wins against top 4 seed, 5 of last 7 seasons ended against a team seeded 4+ less than UW, only 1 win against a higher seeded team, etc) but a Final Four does help offset that data.

For an example look at Aaron Rodgers. Again QBs are judged bases solely on Super Bowls and Playoff performances. Outside of the 2010 SB run, his record is 1-4 with two home losses and only win against a backup qb. But b/c of that SB, he is compared with Manning, Brady, Brees, etc instead of Romo, Rivers, etc.

Norwood44
Norwood44

w8...your data analysis should include the number of teams you compete against as it affects outcome probability. There are far more NCAA D1 teams than NFL teams. Ergo, it's more statistically difficult to win. Or get to the Final Four. Math is an interesting thing. But if you are going to use it, use it fairly. I would also argue that there is not a fair base model because academic qualifying varies from program to program and serves as an outside influencer in the math that makes it even more difficult. So there's that.

w8rh3wk5
w8rh3wk5

If you want to grade Bo as a great coach, NCAA tourney performance is assessed. And a Final Four is a requirement to enter the discussion as a top coach in his era.

UWBone24
UWBone24

Absolutley. Moreso than actual championships.

Arturo
Arturo

QBs are hardly judged by Super Bowls and playoff performances alone, just as coaches are judged by several factors.

Some people try to make that argument , by have no answer when guys like Dilfer and Rypien are brought up. Flawed.

w8rh3wk5
w8rh3wk5

Look at greatest of all time discussions with Montana, Elway, Young, Bradshaw, Unitas, Starr, Favre, Aikman, Marino, Brady, Manning, etc.... Marino is not viewed in the same as Elway, Montana, etc bc of the lack of a title.

Arturo
Arturo

Marino is always brought up in the discussions, no ring and all. Also, you put Brees on your list. His resume without his 1 ring? 3-5 in the playoffs with wins over Garcia, Stafford and Foles with a home loss and a loss to a 7-9 team in 12 years. Yellow journalism by people who never played the game and throw the word "greatest" around way too much.

Jeff Dubay
Jeff Dubay

The only real way to judge a coach against his peers is to see how another coach would do with the same players. Obviously that is impossible. In addition, it's not like Bo has the fab five every year and can't get it done. Other teams were better. It's no coincidence that the most talented team Bo Ryan has ever had is the one to make the final four.

w8rh3wk5
w8rh3wk5

That argument could me made about everyone. Why grade qbs since every one has a different set of teammates

UWBone24
UWBone24

Correct. Never have been a Bo apologist like so many fans. However, I will now qualify him as an elite coach.

urahrahwisconsin
urahrahwisconsin

You just GOTTA believe. LOVE YA BUCKY!

Edwin
Edwin

We are all so proud of our Badgers. Go B1G! Let's pack the Final four with B1G teams.

DragonRider67
DragonRider67

Thanks boys! Thanks Bo! Thanks Butch!

RichardSRussell
RichardSRussell

Go Wolverines!
Go Spartans!
Let's make those Gators realize they're the last #1 seed in the Big 10's crosshairs.

howaboutthat
howaboutthat

Keep it going! TCB!!!!

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