Thirteen years, 440 games. That was the length of Bo Ryan's tenure in Madison, Wis., coming into tonight's Elite Eight matchup with Arizona. Ryan had never reached the mountaintop of college basketball; until tonight.
In game 441 of an exceptional -- yet notoriously lacking -- career, Ryan finally earned a bid to the Final Four.
In a game that likely produced more than its fair share of grey-hairs and heart palpitations among both fan bases, the Badgers came out on top, 64-63. It took overtime and two game-winning shot attempts from Arizona's Nick Johnson before the Wisconsin faithful could finally breath a sigh of relief.
It was a shame that one of these two teams had to go home. The young men on each side fully invested their hearts into every single play. This was a beautiful win for Wisconsin -- earning their first trip to the Final Four since 2000 -- and a brutal loss for the Wildcats.
Prior to the game Arizona guard Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was quoted as saying, "We are tough, nasty and relentless." The Wildcats certainly were, but that goes double for the Badgers.
Junior Frank Kaminsky was downright abusive on the offensive end. It didn't matter who Arizona head coach Sean Miller threw at Kaminsky. Fellow 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski had some initial success against Kaminsky, but that didn't last too long. Freshman stud Aaron Gordon tried his hand a few times -- usually with double-team help -- to no avail. Kaminsky shot 11-for-20 on the night -- including 3-of-5 from three-point range -- finishing with 28 points, 11 rebounds and only one turnover. If this performance doesn't earn Kaminsky an "I'm the Man" commercial, I don't know what will.
Kaminsky put his multifaceted offensive prowess on display all night long. He used beautiful footwork, deft double pumps and flick of the wrist hook shots in the post. He also broke loose from Tarczewski on a few occasions, knocking down several long jumpers. Bo Ryan should adopt this young man into his family after the kind of show he put on tonight in Anaheim, Cal.
Unfortunately, everyone in a Wisconsin uniform that didn't have the name Kaminsky stitched on the back combined to shoot a putrid 13-for-41. Arizona's defense was stifling, running the smaller Badger guards off of the three-point line and rarely allowing any drives to the rim. Traevon Jackson shot 4-for-14, finishing as the Badgers second leading scorer with 10 points. In the second half and overtime Jackson was continually forced into shooting difficult jumpers, going 1-for-8 with four total points. That pretty much sums up all the help Kaminsky had tonight.
The Wildcats got off to a fast start against the Badgers, holding a 22-14 lead early in the game. Arizona had no problem getting into the lane and establishing deep post position against an overmanned Badger team. Their ability to get out in transition was apparent early on. What also became apparent was the Wildcats issues finishing those opportunities. Despite a number of excellent looks at the basket for the Wildacts, Wisconsin and Arizona finished the first half tied with 10 points in the paint apiece. Wisconsin went on a 5-0 run over the final two minutes of the first half to close the gap three, heading to the the locker rooms down 28-25.
The second half was a battle between two teams that felt they needed to win. The back and forth conflict saw neither team lead by more than five points throughout the remainder of the game. It was really just an inflated version of that classic childhood game, "anything you can do, I can do better."
Tarczewski gives Kaminsky way too much space, so he goes ahead and knocks down a three. Badgers take a 50-48 lead with 4:30 left. Hollis-Jefferson comes right down the court and weaves his way under the basket, making a circus layup. All tied up, 50-50. Jackson pulls up on a drive and banks in a awkward layup with his off-hand. 54-52 Badgers. Jefferson snags a Nick Johnson air ball out of midair and slams it home. 54-54.
This game needed overtime. It was the only way to do these teams any justice in deciding who the better team truly was.
Kaminsky was back at it again in overtime, scoring six points on two lay-ins and a tip-in. Aaron Gordon got his offense going, but it was all for naught. Nick Johnson had two chances to win the game but could not get a shot off before the final buzzer rang. Heartbreak and celebration on either side. So the sports world goes.
This is a Badger team that truly loves their coach and had an understanding of just how important this game was to him. "He deserves it," junior guard Josh Gasser said. "We all want it and we all want it for him."
Likely one-and-done Wildcat star Gordon finished with eight points, 18 rebounds and two blocks. He had seven points over the final eight minutes -- including a three in overtime -- but found his shot falling a little too late. Nick Johnson finished with 16 points, four rebounds and three assists. Despite the stellar numbers Gasser really did an excellent job for the Badgers by forcing Johnson into taking several tough, highly contested shots.
Regardless of the excellent performances turned in by both sides -- Kaminsky going full beast mode on the entire state of Arizona will forever be part of Badger lore -- the real story tonight is the culmination of an incredible coaching career that had always been missing that one key component.
Bo Ryan is going to a Final Four. He will not be in the stands. He will not be watching at home. He will be on the sidelines, in suit and tie, ready to coach on the grandest college basketball stage of them all.