By Brian Hanley
(CBS) — In the case of this Kentucky team being the NCAA’s greatest, the defense never rested.
Wisconsin’s defense, at crunch time, that is.
Kentucky coach John Calipari can testify to that after watching his team’s would-be perfect season end with a 71-64 NCAA Tournament semifinal loss to Bo Ryan’s Badgers.
Kentucky was 38-and-done.
Calipari’s crew made just one basket in the final 6:32 of their would-be championship tune-up for the Wildcats expected coronation come Monday night against Duke.
“I look up, ‘we’re up four,'” Calipari said of his team’s 60-56 late lead. “I’m like, ‘We’re going to win this thing.’ Then, you know, a play here, a play there, all of a sudden we don’t post it. They crowd us, we don’t post it again, we take a late shot. We’re not a team that takes shot-clock violations. We got three.”
Those three shot-clock violations totaled 105 seconds of shock for the Kentucky fans who were the very vocal majority among the 72,238 that packed Lucal Oil Stadium Saturday.
Calipari couldn’t comprehend how his team lost as he sorted statistics for media members after the Badgers knocked Kentucky and its nine McDonald’s All-Americans out of the greatest group college conversation.
“You think about this,” Calipari said. “We had six turnovers for the game. We shot 90 percent from the free-throw line, 60 percent from the three, 48 percent from the field and we lost? What does that mean they did?”
Here’s what the Badgers did:
They outrebounded Kentucky 34-22, limiting the much-taller Wildcats to six on the offensive board.
They outscored Kentucky 13-6 in second-chance points.
They ended Kentucky’s season with a 15-4 run.
Still, the Wildcats were tied with Wisconsin, 60-60, with 2:38 left.
Plenty of time for Kentucky’s defense, which was arguably among the NCAA best in the past 10 or more seasons, to turn the tide on Wisconsin.
But the Badgers’ offense was what got them back to their second straight Final Four. Wisconsin shot 78 percent in the second half against Arizona to advance to Indianapolis.
How hot was Wisconsin’s shooting this season?
Per ESPN, the Badgers had the highest adjusted points per possession on the 13-year history of the KenPom.com efficiency ratings.
On Saturday night, the Badgers shot 51.6 percent on two-point attempts, 41.2 percent from beyond the three-point arc, grabbed 43 percent of available offensive rebounds and averaged 1.22 points per possession.
Kentucky closed out many a game on its way to the 38-0 record which was history Saturday.
Then again, Wisconsin closed out many a game on its way to the 36-3 season that is still alive.
Per ESPN, in the 42 minutes of its season in which the score was within five points with five minutes left in regulation or overtime, Kentucky outscored its opponents by a combined 35 points.
Wisconsin has been even better. The Badgers now have played 52 such clutch minutes. They’ve averaged 1.52 points per possession, allowed .78, outscoring teams by 52 points in that span.
Such statistics said Wisconsin was more than OK when it came to again going toe-toe with UK, which edged the Badgers by only one point in the Final Four last March.
“Last year’s game was motivation, not because of Kentucky, because of how far we got (last season),” said Sam Dekker, who may have played himself into an NBA lottery pick with Wisconsin’s run to the title game.
The Wildcats’ perfection pursuit was of little motivation to the self-believing Badgers.
“It was not the mindset to try and end their streak,” Nigel Hayes said. “[It was] the fact that we wanted to win a national championship, and they were the team we had to play.”
Their season’s surprising end had the Kentucky players shaking their heads rather than many of the Badgers’ hands, as half of UK stunned squad started to head to the locker room instead of lining up to offer congratulations to Wisconsin.
“I mean, I think [we embraced 40-0] because I feel like we were the best team, and I think a lot of people felt like that, too,” Andrew Harrison said. “We just didn’t. . . ”
He didn’t finish the thought just as the Wildcats didn’t finish the season without a loss.
“We were right there with them the whole time,” Wildcats forward Tres Lyles said. “It takes away a lot. You want to go out on top, and we weren’t able to do that. Our final goal, we weren’t able to achieve.”
Harrison lost his cool in the heat of defeat when he uttered an obscenity and a racial slur as a question about Wisconsin’s top talent Frank Kaminsky was asked in the post-game media session Saturday.
Harrison quickly called Kaminsky to apologize.
Harrison tweeted this: “First i want to apologize for my poor choice of words used in jest towards a player I respect and know.
When I realized how this could be perceived I immediately called big frank to apologize and let him know I didn’t mean any disrespect.”
So Harrison, Lyles, and many of these Wildcats go from not making NCAA history to soon making millions in the NBA.
Kaminsky likely meant no disrespect to Kentucky when he said: “It’s great that we had a chance to play a good team along the way and come out on top.”
History holds these Wildcats were more than just good.
Just not as good as it gets.
“We didn’t like to talk about it, but everyone knew in their minds that once we got to the tournament, once we won the SEC tournament, that [40-0] was obviously the goal,” senior Sam Malone said.
“Obviously they were undefeated but we didn’t look at their record or anything like that,” Wisconsin guard Bronson Koenig said.
“I think we’ll be viewed as a great team, obviously, because we made history, 38-1,” Tyler Ulis said.
Just not the greatest.