LOS ANGELES – It’s a motto that most teams in the NCAA tournament don’t necessarily want to adopt, but the Wisconsin men’s basketball has had to survive and advance its way through the tournament.
That was once again the case Thursday for the top-seeded Badgers against No. 4 North Carolina in the Sweet 16 as Wisconsin had to grind its way to the Elite Eight with a 79-72 win over the Tar Heels at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Wisconsin (34-3) was down by seven with 11:11 left in the game after North Carolina (26-12) went on a 10-2 run to take a 53-46 lead.
But then, as they’ve grown accustom to during postseason play this season, the Badgers battled back. After a three from Big Ten Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin redshirt sophomore guard Zak Showalter provided an unlikely spark for Wisconsin with the Badgers down 59-60.
Showalter scored on a layup to give the Badgers’ their first lead of the second half and their first since the 3:43-mark of the first half. He then followed that with a steal and lay-in and the Badgers were on top 63-60 with 5:55 remaining in the game. Forward Sam Dekker then attacked and scored for another layup to cap off a 9-0 run for Wisconsin that gave it a 65-60 lead with 5:14 left.
From there, Wisconsin held off North Carolina, despite back-to-back 3-pointers from Tar Heel guard Marcus Paige that cut the Badgers’ lead to just one with 55 seconds left.
After Paige’s two 3-pointers, North Carolina missed its next two shots to finish the game and missed two free throws while the Badgers went 8-for-8 from the free-throw line over the final minute of the game to seal a second-straight trip to the Elite Eight.
“These guys have been through a lot,” Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan said. “They’ve seen the good runs. They’ve seen the bad runs. But this group never gets discouraged to the point where they get down on themselves or their teammates, and that’s what’s fun.
“But this group right here handles adversity as well as any team I’ve ever coached.”
Dekker led the way for the Badgers with a career-high 23 points, going 10-for-15 from the floor, with 10 rebounds. Kaminsky tallied 19 points and eight rebounds while sophomore forward Nigel Hayes added 12 points with six rebounds for Wisconsin.
Recording his first double-double of the season, Dekker was the lone bright spot for the Badgers in the first half as they shot just 36.7 percent (11-for-30) in the half and only 3-for-10 from three as a team. He scored a game-high 15 points in the first 20 minutes of play and was the only player in double figures for either team.
“I thought I played a pretty good game,” Dekker said. “It wasn’t a complete 40 minutes, but early in the first half I thought we needed a spark, and I saw some opportunities in the open court to give us a spark.”
Showalter, who scored five key points in the second half against Oregon in the third round of the tournament on Sunday, scored six points Thursday, going a perfect 3-for-3 from the floor.
Along with Showalter, senior point guard Traevon Jackson gave the Badgers a much needed spark in the game, as he saw the court for the first time since fracturing his foot against Rutgers on Jan. 11.
Jackson hit his first shot of the game – a three from the corner – and finished with four points in nine minutes.
As they saw Thursday, if Showalter and Jackson can provide some depth in the back court, it will only help the Badgers as they seek a second straight Final Four appearance.
“[Showalter] was huge,” Jackson said. “[Showalter] was the real deal today. I’m just happy for him that he was aggressive. So, we just need to be aggressive like that, we just add to the team and that’s all we can focus on.”
Kaminsky was just 2-for-7, scoring four points in the first half, but added 15 points in the second half, going 3-for-4 from the floor and 8-for-8 from the free-throw line.
Dekker and Kaminsky combined to score over half of Wisconsin’s points Thursday.
“I just don’t get frustrated,” Kaminksy said. “Sam had a great first half and really kept us in that game. Without Sam out there getting buckets, he had that tip-in at the end of the first half and that really helped us out. So I just knew coming out in the second half I had to be aggressive and try to open up things for my teammates and I was able to do so.”
It was the combination of nearly everyone that stepped on the court for the Badgers Thursday night that willed them to the program’s sixth Elite Eight.
“They have huge heart,” Wisconsin associate head coach Greg Gard said. “They’re very talented, everybody talks about that, obviously we have very good players. But deep down they’re a group that has a lot of fight in them. They won’t quit, they won’t back down, when things get a little rough.”
Wisconsin will take on No. 2 Arizona Saturday in the West Regional finals with a spot in the Final Four on the line. The Wildcats defeated No. 6 Xavier Thursday 68-60. It is the second straight season that Wisconsin and Arizona will meet in the West Regional finals.
Tip-off Saturday is scheduled for 5:09 central on TBS.