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March 30, 2014

Regional final heartbreak continues for Arizona

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The Happiest Place on Earth may be 10 minutes away, but it was far from such a scene for Arizona and its fans at the Honda Center on Saturday night.

But, at the same time, the joy in the other locker room was for Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan - who advanced to his first Final Four after his 704th career coaching victory. The No. 2-seeded Badgers (30-7) pulled out a 64-63 overtime classic over the top-seeded Wildcats (33-5) in the NCAA West Regional final.

Frank Kaminsky, the regional's most outstanding player, scored 20 of his game-high 28 points in the second half - including the go-ahead jump shot with 2:21 left in the extra session - and added 11 rebounds to notch a double-double.

Neither team led by more than three in a one-possession game over the final 17:09, including overtime.

"I can't explain it," the center said after making 11 of 20 shots to help send the Badgers back to the Final Four for the first time since the Dick Bennett-led team of 2000. "This is like nothing else I've ever felt before. We've all played basketball our whole lives and we've all dreamed of going to the Final Four. To actually accomplish that is something I can't put into words."

Wisconsin will meet the winner of Sunday's contest between No. 2 seed Michigan and No. 8 Kentucky in the Midwest Regional final.

The victory also happened to fall on what would've been the 90th birthday for Ryan's father, who died Aug. 30.

"He was always about the kids that he helped mentor growing up and, you know, that's why I do it," Ryan said. "To be able to see the faces of these guys, to see the genuine excitement.

"I can remember some of the great teams that he had of kids and their first championships and how they acted and just the joy. These guys have had some others, but that's all I wanted to see."

The back-and-forth battle featured a number of momentum-changing point swings in the second half, and the Wildcats never got to produce a last attempt.

After referees reversed a call on an in-bound play with 2.3 seconds left, Arizona All-American guard Nick Johnson failed to get the final shot off as the ball was in his hand when the buzzer sounded.

"If I had to go back and do it, I'd probably take one less dribble so I could get the shot off," said Johnson, who finished with a team-high 16 points on 6-of-16 shooting.

It is the program's fourth loss in the round since 2003 - all of which ended with a chance to win or tie on the game's final possession.

The junior also was involved in the bang-bang call of the night on the previous Arizona possession. After T.J. McConnell misfired with 11 seconds left and tracked down his own offensive rebound, Johnson dribbled toward the right baseline and pulled up for an attempt, but official Tony Greene whistled him for an offensive foul against Josh Gasser with 3.2 seconds left.

"It probably could have gone both ways," Johnson said. "It was a great play by their defender. I wish it would've went the other way but, hey, it happens."

Wildcats fifth-year head coach Sean Miller, who is now 0-3 in the Elite Eight, thought otherwise and hinted at memories of another call that went against Arizona in last year's Pac-12 Conference tournament.

"I thought it was a really, really tough call," Miller said. "I'm going to stop there. I've already been fined."

But the Wildcats had one more shot thanks to the hustle of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who dove toward the Arizona bench to knock away the in-bound pass from Badgers guard Traevon Jackson. Initially awarded to Wisconsin, officials reviewed the play for several minutes before reversing the call and setting up the final sequence.

The ending spoiled a flurry of clutch plays at the end of regulation and overtime from UA freshman Aaron Gordon, who was held under double-digit points for the first time in four tournament games.

It may be the last games of his career, with the temptation of the NBA now at his feet.

"We had a great season, and it was one of the all-time greats in Arizona history," said Gordon, who finished with eight points. "I'm just disappointed that the ball didn't bounce our way this time. That's how the game goes sometimes."

About his future, Gordon added: "I'm not sure. I have a great family. I have a great foundation. So I'm going to talk to a few people and see how that goes and then make an educated decision."

Despite starting the contest 0 of 8, Gordon made his final three shots and pulled down a career-high 18 rebounds. His first basket came on a baseline spin and reverse layup that tied the game at 52 with 2:32 left in regulation.

After a Jackson layup, Hollis-Jefferson then soared in for a putback dunk to knot the game at 54 with 31 seconds remaining. On Wisconsin's last attempt, Gordon contested Jackson's stepback jump shot to force the extra session.

From there, Gordon matched a Ben Brust 3-pointer and a Kaminsky layup with a dunk for the first four baskets of overtime. Tied at 59, Kaminsky added his go-ahead jumper and tip-in to account for four of the Badgers' next six points.

"Just wanted to do anything I could to make sure that we won that basketball game," Kaminsky said. "I personally wanted it really bad."

Senior guard Jordin Mayes, playing in his final collegiate game, gave the Wildcats one last chance after his own tip-in cut the deficit to 64-63 with 58 seconds left.

"You run into not only great players and great coaches," Miller said, "but you go against these teams that have been really good from start to finish. Wisconsin is a great team. They can win the national championship, close to being a 1-seed.

"It just hurts because I think everybody in here knows that that could have gone either way eight times over. We're on the losing end of it, so we're going home."

Trailing by 3 at the break, Wisconsin immediately seized control of the momentum to start the second half.

Defensively, it was the energy provided by Nigel Hayes. On the other end, the Badgers went to Kaminsky and the Wildcats had no answer for him. The center's patience and footwork made him a tough cover inside.

Wisconsin took its first lead of the contest at 36-34 on a Bronson Koenig basket with 15:12 remaining, and led by as many as five on Koenig's 3-pointer two minutes later.

Kaminsky missed a chance to extend the lead to seven, and McConnell's 3-pointer pulled UA within 41-39. After a wild missed 3 from Gasser, a Hollis-Jefferson putback tied the game at 41 with 11:26 left and set the tone for the rest of the contest.

The defensive-minded first half was a battle of the opposing 7-footers.

Both scored eight points apiece through 20 minutes, but Kaminsky grabbed six rebounds - four on the offensive end - as the Badgers owned a plus-8 margin on the glass.

"Wisconsin was killing us on the glass in the first half," Miller said. "It was amazing that we were winning."

Arizona's largest lead of the half was 22-14 with less than eight minutes to play, thanks in part to Wisconsin's uncharacteristic early carelessness. Kaminsky's shooting range, however, kept Wisconsin within striking distance.

With the lead trimmed to 4, Johnson made a floater and a pair McConnell free throws pushed the lead to 28-20 with 2:54 remaining until halftime.

But three free throws, a miss on the front end of a 1-on-1 by Kaleb Tarczewski and an ensuing Jackson 3-pointer cut the Badgers' deficit to 3 within 90 seconds.

Arizona took a 28-25 advantage into the locker room, but it was ultimately Wisconsin which would cut down the nets.

"I was a lot tougher on this group than I was on last year's group," Ryan said. "I just wasn't going to accept them not understanding that they could be pretty good."

Final Four good.

Tracy McDannaldTracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor

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