West Region: Wisconsin hangs on to beat North Carolina
Los Angeles — Wisconsin looked like a beaten team for much of the game.
Frank Kaminsky got off to a slow start, his team couldn't make a shot in the first half and then fell behind by seven midway through the second half.
It looked like a repeat of the Big Ten Conference title game, when the Badgers were left for road kill against Michigan State before coming back to win in overtime.
The top-seeded Badgers again proved their grit, rallying in the final 10 minutes to hold off North Carolina 79-72 Thursday night and advance to the final eight of the NCAA Tournament.
Sam Dekker had a career-high 23 points and 10 rebounds, Kaminsky added 19 and Nigel Hayes 12 to send Wisconsin (34-3) into the West Regional final Saturday against No. 2 seed Arizona, which beat sixth-seeded Xavier 68-60. Wisconsin beat Arizona in overtime last season in the Elite Eight.
"The toughness that they showed today was really something," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "It's strange, the difference between winning and losing is so small."
Marcus Paige hit consecutive 3-pointers that drew Carolina within one with 54 seconds to go, but Wisconsin made all eight of its free throws — four by Kaminsky — over the closing seconds.
"Everyone knows that once we get to free throw time at the end of the game, we've got to make our free throws or they're going to come down and score," Kaminsky said. "We've been through that a lot this season with situations like that. So it's just nice to be able to go out there and do it."
Zak Showalter came off the bench to score six points in the Badgers' 19-7 comeback run after they were forced into tough positions by Carolina's perimeter defense.
"The plays he made for us in that two-minute span, we wouldn't have won without them," Hayes said. "This was similar to the Michigan State game except it didn't go to overtime. We weren't really playing our type of basketball. We were letting them have their way and their will. All we needed was a couple plays to get us going."
The teams shot exactly the same — 46 percent — for the game, but the Badgers improved to 58 percent in the second half and made 20 of 23 free throws to keep their hopes of a second straight Final Four berth alive.
"These guys have been through a lot. They've seen the good runs. They've seen the bad runs," Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. "But this group never gets discouraged to the point where they get down on themselves or their teammates, and that's what's fun."
Brice Johnson and Justin Jackson scored 15 points each for the fourth-seeded Tar Heels (26-12), who got within one with 4:21 remaining but couldn't retake the lead. Paige finished with 12 points.
"We wanted to pressure them and not allow them to be comfortable, and we did that for the most part," Paige said. "The problem was we couldn't finish our defense on key possessions."
The Tar Heels appeared to have the game in hand when they were up by seven and Kaminsky went down with his hands covering his eyes, having gotten hit by Isaiah Hicks.
Turns out "Frank the Tank" was just getting his team revved up.
With Kaminsky on the bench, the Badgers launched the 19-7 run that put them back in front, 65-60. Kaminsky quickly returned to hit a 3-pointer, and Showalter scored four straight, including a layup off his own steal, putting the red-clad Wisconsin fans in full-throated cheers.
"It's just great to have so many voices understanding what needs to happen and what we need to do out on the court, which was getting stops," Kaminsky said, "and then coming down and getting good, easy looks at the bucket and we were able to do so."
Carolina's Kennedy Meeks returned from a sprained left knee last weekend to bother Kaminsky early before getting in foul trouble.
Trailing by one, the Tar Heels outscored the Badgers 14-6 to take their largest lead, 53-46. Berry and Hicks had four apiece while the Badgers struggled to make a shot.
Kaminsky got hit on his layup that ended Carolina's run. He covered his face, but eventually got up and played the rest of the game with an eye that was open even less than his usual sleepy appearance.
Dekker carried the Badgers offensively with 15 points in the first half, including a layup that just beat the buzzer to pull Wisconsin within 33-31, just the sixth time the Badgers trailed at the break this season.
"I just tried to stay on attack mode," Dekker said. "My shot wasn't falling like I'd like it to be, so I just tried to take it to the lane more and get some easy buckets and just cause a difference in there."
Neither team led by more than five points in the first half, when Carolina shot 50 percent.
Arizona 68, Xavier 60: Just when Arizona appeared to be in serious trouble against underdog Xavier, T.J. McConnell sparked his Wildcats back to the brink of the Final Four.
McConnell scored 13 of his 17 points in the second half, freshman Stanley Johnson added 12 points, and second-seeded Arizona made a dominant late rally for a victory over sixth-seeded Xavier in the West Regional semifinals.
Kaleb Tarczewski had 12 points and 12 rebounds as the Wildcats (34-3) weathered a major scare from the Musketeers (23-14) and clamped down defensively during a game-ending 19-7 run.
With its third Elite Eight berth in five years, Arizona gets another shot its first Final Four under coach Sean Miller, who led Xavier for five years until 2009.
The Wildcats will face top-seeded Wisconsin (34-3) on Saturday at Staples Center in a rematch of last season's West final.
"It's almost as if we had a summer to think about it, and we have to somehow make that to our advantage," Miller said.
Matt Stainbrook had 17 points and 10 rebounds in his final game for Xavier, which fell just short of its first trip to the Elite Eight since 2008. Those Musketeers were coached by Miller and assistant Chris Mack, who replaced his boss.