Perfect no more, and no national championship for Kentucky.
A veteran and poised Wisconsin team made the plays down the stretch and defeated the Wildcats 71-64 in a Final Four semifinal on Saturday.
Kentucky was bidding to become the first team to finish a college basketball season at 40-0. But the Wildcats will have to settle for 38-1.
“It hurts,” Kentucky Coach John Calipari said.
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The Badgers will meet Duke on Monday for the national championship and attempt to win the school’s second title. The first came in 1941.
Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker will be remembered for hitting the game’s biggest shot. The score was 60-60 when he stepped back and drilled a three-pointer with 1:45 remaining.
He then delivered a huge defensive moment, standing his ground against a driving Aaron Harrison. Official John Higgins called a charge, and the Badgers soon increased their lead to four.
Dekker added a free throw, and Aaron Harrison responded with a three-pointer that made it 64-63 with 56 seconds remaining. That was Kentucky’s first field goal in nearly 6 minutes.
From there, Wisconsin won it at the free-throw line.
The Badgers’ Frank Kaminsky nailed two free throws with 24.5 seconds to play. Kentucky’s Karl Anthony-Towns made one, but missed the second, and 12 seconds remained when Wisconsin’s Bronson Koenig hit two more.
That was it. The Wildcats didn’t have the ball with less than a two-score deficit.
“We were just tough from start to finish,” said Kaminsky, who celebrated his 22nd birthday Saturday. “Our team knows how to play. We are a veteran group.
“And this was the best birthday present I ever had.”
The final seconds ticked away as Wisconsin players hugged at midcourt and some Kentucky players dejectedly headed to the locker room.
But the Badgers’ celebration didn’t last long.
“This gives us another 40 minutes,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said.
The Wildcats were favored over the Big Ten champion Badgers, but Wisconsin was entirely capable. The Badgers had played wonderfully in defeating Arizona in the West Region final, and they had been on this stage before.
The same teams played in last year’s national semifinal, with Kentucky taking a one-point victory.
Many of the players returned this season and their teams formed a sharp contrast. Wisconsin is the game’s most offensively efficient team, leading the nation in points per possession. Kentucky is college basketball’s top-rated defensive team.
That allowed the Wildcats to roar through 38 opponents with only a handful of scares. One of them came last week in the Midwest Regional final, a two-point victory over Notre Dame.
Was that an omen? Did the Fighting Irish, with their ability to score on Kentucky — especially at the basket — provide a blueprint to beating Kentucky?
“I never talked about breaking a streak or beating a team that’s unbeaten,” Ryan said.
The Wildcats lost despite shooting 48 percent and committing just six turnovers.
Calipari had taken pride that his team had been able to win — and usually easily — when the team or individuals didn’t play at their best.
“If you want to blame somebody, blame me,” Calipari said.
But Kentucky played well most of Saturday. If there’s a nit to pick with the Wildcats, they stretched out possessions too long late and suffered shot-clock violations. The Badgers took advantage of those ugly possessions.
And Wisconsin simply played better. The Badgers led most of the game. They opened a nine-point lead in the first half — Kentucky’s biggest deficit of the tournament, and led by eight early in the second half.
Each time the Wildcats rallied and forged ahead, but Wisconsin played with poise and responded.
Kaminsky finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds and Dekker added 16 points.
Amazingly, the Badgers outrebounded Kentucky 34-22, and only allowed six offensive boards. Willie Cauley-Stein, the All-American who graduated from Olathe Northwest, had a flying slam off a lob for the Wildcats’ second basket of the game, but that was his only hoop.
After the game, Cauley-Stein, who surprised many by returning for his junior year, said he’s leaning toward leaving college.
“Probably,” Cauley-Stein said. “It’s time to take another step.”
Same for Kentucky, which figures to be a powerhouse again next year, no matter who departs.
“We’d love to have been 40-0,” Calipari said. “Let’s see if we can take another stab at it.”