LOS ANGELES (AP) — Sam Dekker pulled up in front of Wisconsin’s bench and found a few inches of air above Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s outstretched arm.
Just enough space to launch the 3-pointer already known as the Dekker Dagger. Just enough room to bury Arizona’s Final Four dreams for another year.
Once again, Arizona and coach Sean Miller got to the brink of college basketball’s final weekend.
Once again, his Cats couldn’t make the leap.
Dekker scored 20 of his career-best 27 points in the second half, and top-seeded Wisconsin shredded Arizona’s vaunted defense to advance to the Final Four with an 85-78 victory Saturday night.
For the second straight year in an Elite Eight game in Southern California, second-seeded Arizona (34-4) couldn’t figure out a way to get past the Badgers. For all their regular-season success and consecutive Pac-12 titles under Miller, the Wildcats’ Final Four drought will be at 15 years next spring.
“It just hurts,” senior guard T.J. McConnell said in the locker room, moments before breaking down in quiet tears. “We had a lead at halftime, and they just made so many tough shots. We all really wanted to get there, so it hurts just as much as last year.”
Frank Kaminsky had 29 points for Wisconsin (35-3), which dropped 55 points after halftime in a dizzying display of high-level passing and shooting.
The Wildcats spent all winter building one of the best defenses in recent college hoops history, according to many statistical measures — only to give up the most points they have allowed all season. Wisconsin scarcely made a mistake, hitting 15 of 19 shots after halftime — including a jaw-dropping 10 of 12 3-point attempts.
Dekker wrapped it up when Wisconsin had a five-point lead and a dwindling shot clock with 17 seconds left, burying his fifth consecutive 3-pointer over Hollis-Jefferson, the Wildcats’ best perimeter defender.
“Sam Dekker pretty much just crushed our dreams with that shot,” said McConnell, who had 14 points in his final college game. “We did a good job on him in the first half. He showed his true self in the second half. He played like an NBA player.”
Dekker walked away from the shot with a preternatural calm while the Wisconsin fan section erupted. Hollis-Jefferson slumped at the waist, realizing Arizona’s dynamic season was done.
“I was so happy he hit it on Rondae, because he was talking stuff before the game,” Wisconsin’s Traevon Jackson said. “He’s a good dude, I mean a good player, but he’s not better than Sam. I don’t usually say stuff about players, but I didn’t like that, and it was great to see Sam go out and go to work.”
Hollis-Jefferson and Brandon Ashley scored 17 points apiece to lead the Wildcats, who appeared to be in solid shape for that breakthrough win when the second half began. Arizona bounced back from a lousy start to take a 33-30 halftime lead.
Instead, Wisconsin made a tremendous surge to open the second half, scoring 27 points in just over 9 minutes. The Badgers hit six of seven 3-point attempts to open the half, taking a 57-48 lead.
“Their offensive execution and their ability to make shots in the second half, it was like a video game,” Miller said. “For the last 16 minutes of the first half, we were clearly the better team. We liked how our game plan was working. What happened was that second player jumped on us.”
That would be Dekker, whose outside shot will live in the Wildcats’ nightmares.
Wisconsin’s stellar play left Miller with few regrets about his game plan or his Wildcats’ effort. But after falling short in the Elite Eight once with Xavier and three times at Arizona, Miller will have to wait even longer for his first trip to the Final Four.
“When you lose in this game, it’s hard,” Miller said. “You lose four times in seven years, and that’s probably a record, right? I come back to the point that it’s a process. It’s a long journey. It’s not a single moment. … If you’re T.J. McConnell and you’ve won 69 games in two years and you never lost a home game and you’ve gone to back-to-back Elite Eights, no kid should walk out of here with anything other than their head held high.
“Maybe the fifth time that I get back here, maybe I’ll break through.”
Arizona: The Wildcats shots 57 percent in the second half, but made just one 3-pointer. Arizona went 28 for 30 from the free throw line. … Arizona fell one victory short of setting a program record for victories in a four-year span. The Wildcats also could have matched the program’s season record for wins.
Wisconsin: Josh Gasser’s 10 points led the rest of Wisconsin’s roster behind Dekker and Kaminsky. … The Badgers missed more free throws (5) than field goal attempts (4) in the second half.
Arizona: A long summer followed by the start of its Pac-12 title defense in the fall.
Wisconsin: A second straight trip to the Final Four, this time in Indianapolis.
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