For every punch thrown by No. 4 seed North Carolina, No. 1 seed Wisconsin punched back.
Wisconsin faced a second-half deficit as large as seven in its West Regional semifinal, but the Badgers stormed back behind a career-high 23 points and 10 rebounds from junior Sam Dekker en route to a 79-72 victory that got the Badgers a spot in the Elite Eight.
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In addition to a standout performance from Dekker, player of the year candidate Frank Kaminsky added 19 points (8-of-8 FTs) and eight boards for the Badgers while sophomore forward Nigel Hayes had 12.
But when the Badgers needed a spark, it came from an unlikely source.
Down four with seven minutes to go, sophomore guard Zak Showalter, a former walk-on, came in off the bench for foul-ridden Bronson Koenig. All Showalter did in a three-minute span was hit a runner in the lane, feed Kaminsky for the go-ahead three, make a sweet reverse layup off a feed from Josh Gasser and give the Badgers a three-point lead with a steal and a lay-in in traffic.
From then on out, the pesky Tar Heels never regained a lead – but they did not go down quietly. The Heels, who led at the half and for much of the second half, cut the lead down to 71-70 with 54 seconds to play on back-to-back deep threes from Marcus Paige.
However, the experienced Badgers hit all eight free throws they attempted in the final minute to seal the win.
Though it finished with 79 points, this was far from a sparkling shooting performance from Wisconsin. A field goal drought of nearly five minutes to end the first half turned a five-point Badgers lead into a two-point halftime lead for UNC.
A similar Wisconsin dry spell of five minutes early in the second half allowed the Heels to extend that lead to seven behind a balanced scoring attack from Justin Jackson (15 points), Brice Johnson (15 points), Paige (12 points) and Joel Berry II (9 points).
Still, the Heels couldn’t pull away when they had the chance and the veteran Badgers hung around until their offense – sparked by Showalter – came around.
Next on the agenda for Bo Ryan’s bunch is an Elite Eight showdown with the winner of Thursday night’s matchup with No. 2 seed Arizona and No. 6 seed Xavier.
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