One of John Calipari's catchphrases of late has been that his team was undefeated but not perfect. It is now neither of those, as Wisconsin ended Kentucky's unblemished run 71-64 in the Final Four last night.
Except for a Badger run and Wildcat comeback, the first half of the game was pretty tight. Down 11-9 with 13:33 to go, UW went on a 14-3 run over the next five minutes to take a 23-14 lead and put UK on its heels. Kentucky would respond as Andrew Harrison broke the run with a layup, starting a 15-7 run for Big Blue that pulled them to within a point at 30-29. The teams largely traded points from there and ended up tied at 36 at the half.
A flurry of activity in the first five minutes of the half led to a 52-44 Wisconsin lead at the 14:46 mark on the clock. From there, the Badgers' offense finally cooled off and Kentucky's defense got a handle on it. UW wouldn't hit the 60 mark until 2:35 to go, a 12-minute stretch in which it scored just eight points. For an offense as great as the Badgers', that's an incredible dry spell. Wisconsin can play some defense too, though, and the Wildcats were only able to build a 60-58 lead when Nigel Hayes' put back with zero on the shot clock—somehow review didn't overturn an obvious shot clock violation—got Wisconsin going again.
Andrew Harrison missed on the other end, and a Sam Dekker step back three put UK on its heels at 63-60 with 1:44 to go. After Dekker made one-of-two on a later possession, Aaron Harrison completed a three-point play to pull within one at 64-63 with just under a minute to go. Frank Kaminsky and Bronson Koenig would ice the game from there, making seven-of-eight from the line in the final 0:25, as Aaron Harrison missed a three and the team turned it over on its final two real possessions.
The teams shot a similar percentage from the floor: Wisconsin 47.9% and Kentucky 48.1%. From three, the Wildcats outshot the Badgers 60% to 41.2%. UK edged out UW at the line too, 90% versus 81.8%. The difference was that Wisconsin took more threes, making seven to Kentucky's three, and took more free throws, making 18 versus Kentucky's nine.
Despite those great percentages and only six turnovers, UK's downfall still came due to those shot total imbalances and a 12-6 offensive rebounding edge (34-22 overall) that Wisconsin enjoyed. A team with the size the Wildcats have shouldn't ever lose that badly on the boards, but it did last night. Kentucky starts three players who are 6'10" or taller and had just 22 total rebounds for the game.
Kaminsky led all scorers with 20 points, and he had 11 rebounds. Dekker poured in 16, while Hayes and Koenig each had 12. Karl-Anthony Towns led Kentucky in likely his last game in blue with 16 points and nine boards. Andrew Harrison scored 13, while brother Aaron had 12. Willie Cauley-Stein had just two points with his five rebounds, while Trey Lyles managed only a single rebound to go with his nine points.
Kentucky had one of the best seasons a team has ever had. Winning 38 games is a true achievement, and losing to this Wisconsin team—a 1-seed with one of the best offenses ever—brings no shame. These days, the best football teams need only to go 15-0 to earn a perfect record, and UK gathered more wins than that in conference play alone. It's a longer, tougher task in basketball, and Big Blue very nearly pulled it off. To come this close is a credit to both the players and Calipari.
The warning signs were there in the Elite Eight, when Kentucky had to shoot a crazy percentage in the second half to keep up with and ultimately knock off Notre Dame. Wisconsin is more efficient on offense than this year's Irish were, and it played better defense. The mix was right for knocking off the Wildcats, and the Badgers did it. Kentucky will be back and it's far from done in winning national titles, but this one will always be the one that got away.