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Wisconsin defeats Arizona in NCAA finals, earns Final Four berth

This was the second consecutive year the two teams met in the finals of the NCAA men's basketball tournament West Regional. (Thinkstock)
This was the second consecutive year the two teams met in the finals of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament West Regional. (Thinkstock)

Top-seeded Wisconsin earned its second consecutive Final Four berth Saturday, defeating second-seeded Arizona, 85-78, at Staples Center, thanks in large measure to torrid second-half shooting.

The Badgers made 15 of 19 second-half shots (78.9 percent), including 10 of 12 3-point shots  (83.3 percent) to overcome a 33-30 halftime deficit and advance to a Final Four matchup against Kentucky, a 68-66 winner over Notre Dame in today’s Midwest Regional final in Cleveland, next Saturday in Indianapolis.

‘Those shots were good shots,” said Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, whose team lost to Kentucky 74-73, in last year’s national semifinal. “They were open. Teammates put them into position. It was a pass before the pass to Sam (Dekker) that set Sam up for a couple of his threes. The way these guys have played off of each other.

“Sometimes we have guys that are pretty smart and what they’re trying to figure out in the first half is where we need to go, what we can do to get good shots because in the second half they’ve done a much better job of getting good looks. Then guys got hot.

“You don’t shoot 79 percent every day in a half. But they were good shots and they shouldn’t have missed the other four.”

Dekker was selected as the regional’s most outstanding player. The 6- foot-9 senior forward from Sheboygan, Wisconsin scored 20 of his career-high 27 points in the second half, when he made all five of his 3-point shots and his lone 2-point shot.

Dekker’s previous career high of 23 came in Thursday’s 79-72 regional semifinal victory over North Carolina.

Frank Kaminsky, the Badgers’ 7-foot senior forward on a team that does not list a center on its roster, scored a game-high 29 points.

Wisconsin (35-3) began the second half by outscoring the Wildcats, 11-1, with Kaminsky scoring nine points, taking a 41-34 lead two minutes, 40 seconds into the second half.

Arizona’s 10-3 run over 2:30 cut the margin to one, 47-46, with 13:48 left. Wisconsin immediately responded with a 10-2 run in 2:34, including 3- point baskets by Dekker and Nigel Hayes, gave the Badgers a 57-48 lead with 10:53 remaining.

Wisconsin held four 11-point leads, the last 70-59 with 5:14 to play.

Reserve junior guard Gabe York’s 3-point basket with 2:21 cut the deficit to five, 76-71, but the Wildcats were unable to get any closer, with Dekker’s two 3-point baskets and two free throws in the final 1:51 sealing the victory.

“I give tremendous credit to Wisconsin,” said Arizona coach Sean Miller, whose team finished 34-4. “Their offensive execution and their ability to make shots in the second half, it was like a video game. Their second-half offense was spectacular, extraordinary.”

Junior forward Brandon Ashley and sophomore forward Rondae Hollis- Jefferson led the Wildcats with 17 each.  Senior guard T.J. McConnell added 14, and junior center Kaleb Tarczewski and York 11 each.

Wisconsin scored the game’s first five points and led 10-2 3:37 into the game, with Arizona missing seven of its first eight shots.

An 8-2 run with Ashley scoring six points tied the score, 14-14, 9:04 before halftime. The Wildcats took their first lead, 25-24, 3:15 before halftime on York’s 3-point basket.

Hollis-Jefferson’s jump shot with 16 seconds left in the half gave Arizona its biggest lead, 33-28. Dekker closed the first-half scoring by making two free throws with one second left.

“For the last 16 minutes of the first half, we were clearly the better team,” Miller said. “I believe we felt good. We also liked how our game plan was working. What hurt us in the second half was right away that other player jumped on us, making 3s.”

This was the second consecutive year the two teams met in the finals of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament West Regional. Wisconsin was a 64-63 winner in overtime last year at Anaheim’s Honda Center, in a game Arizona had three chances in the final 11 seconds to re-take the lead.

This was the ninth time teams have met in back-to-back in the Elite 8 and eighth consecutive time the series has been swept by one team.

The Final Four berth is the fourth for the Badgers. Arizona was seeking its fifth Final Four berth and first since 2001.

This was the fifth time in Wisconsin’s seven NCAA or Big Ten Conference tournament games this year it trailed in the second half, rallying to win all five.

The Badgers trailed in five games in the second half before the start of the Big Ten Conference tournament.

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