Wisconsin attempts to end Kentucky's historic run by repeating history

INDIANAPOLIS – Aaron Harrison launched The Shot. Josh Gasser leaped to contest. As the ball arced through the air, Harrison's follow-through met Gasser's lunge.

"I think our fingers actually interlocked," Gasser recalled.

Aaron Harrison (2) makes the game-winning three-point basket over Josh Gasser in last year's Final Four. (AP)
Aaron Harrison (2) makes the game-winning three-point basket over Josh Gasser in last year's Final Four. (AP)

Their fates interlocked as well. And Harrison had the upper hand that night.

The Wisconsin guard had given the Kentucky guard just enough space to rise up for a 3-pointer in the dying seconds in last year's Final Four, with the Wildcats down two. Despite Harrison's history of clutch shooting – he'd made shots to beat Louisville and Michigan the previous week – Gasser believes his defense was solid.

"We played him exactly how we wanted to," Gasser said. "When it left his hand I was feeling pretty good."

When he turned his head toward the rim, he was feeling pretty bad. Harrison's shot rattled and dropped with 5.7 seconds left, carrying Kentucky to a 74-73 victory and into the national championship game. The Badgers were crushed.

"Shocked," was the word Traevon Jackson used Friday, more than once.

Most of the involved parties will come back together again, 364 days later, here Saturday night. Once again, it's a national semifinal. Once again, the winner will move to Monday and play for a title.

But will the outcome be different this time?

With the Wildcats on the brink of a historic feat, the Badgers might wish to consult history to find some inspiration. This Kentucky-Wisconsin rematch has a very similar feel to the epic UNLV-Duke rematch 24 years ago.

A Duke team that was beaten in the 1990 Final Four got its payback shot at the '91 Final Four, against an unbeaten UNLV juggernaut that was being appraised as one of college basketball's greatest teams. And the payback chance came in Indianapolis.

Sound familiar?

There are some differences, of course. UNLV's team was virtually the same from 1990 to '91; Kentucky has fattened its roster with four McDonald's All-American freshmen – and Willie Cauley-Stein, who missed last year's Final Four with an injury. And the Badgers lost by a point in the final seconds; Duke wishes the '90 title game had ever been that close.

Duke's Bobby Hurley goes to the floor after the basketball as Stacey Augmon of UNLV, right, and teammate Grant Hill (33) watch during the '91 Final Four. (AP)
Duke's Bobby Hurley goes to the floor after the basketball as Stacey Augmon of UNLV, right, and teammate Grant Hill (33) watch during the '91 Final Four. (AP)

The Blue Devils hadn't just been beaten by the Runnin' Rebels – they were destroyed. UNLV won by 30 points, a title-game record victory margin that still stands. Its 103 points scored remain the record as well. Jerry Tarkanian's team shot 62 percent from the field, forced 23 turnovers and pressured freshman Duke point guard Bobby Hurley into distress.

In the year since that rout, UNLV had not lost. The Rebels were so dominant, averaging 98 points per game, that they arrived in Indianapolis as the prohibitive favorite to repeat as champion. Many figured the Blue Devils would suffer post-traumatic stress at the very sight of the Runnin' Rebels.

"How naive I was, and a lot of our fans were, [to] the fact that we beat them by 30 points the year before, I thought that would crush their confidence," said Danny Tarkanian, Jerry's son and former assistant. "But my dad was very concerned about the game, because he thought Duke would play with so much determination. He was right on it."

A year older and tougher, Hurley handled the UNLV pressure better. Christian Laettner, moved from power forward the previous year to center and no longer guarded by Naismith Player of the Year Larry Johnson, had a dominant performance. The addition of freshman Grant Hill was an athleticism equalizer.

"The thing I remember is we had Grant Hill," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "We didn't have him the year before when we lost to UNLV by 30."

Duke pulled one of the game's greatest upsets, 79-77.

"That was the only time after a game my dad ever cried," Danny Tarkanian said. "He felt so bad for the players. Some of them had turned down the NBA to come back for that season."

Another parallel there. Kentucky's Harrison twins, Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress did the same this year, giving John Calipari a rare veteran team.

Two days after the titanic upset, the Blue Devils came down out of the clouds to beat Kansas for the national title – the first of four over the next 19 years. The program was transformed from Couldn't Win The Big One status into an established champion. But the ripple effect from the UNLV game didn't stop.

The outcome was so shocking – and UNLV's reputation sufficiently dubious – that it didn't take long for point-shaving rumors to percolate. The rumors hit a full boil when a picture surfaced in the months after the season showing three Runnin' Rebels in a hot tub with Richard "The Fixer" Perry – a man who was convicted of fixing New York harness races in the 1970s and pled guilty to Federal conspiracy charges in 1984 related to a point-shaving scandal at Boston College. There was a federal investigation of UNLV's program, but no charges were ever filed.

It likely didn't take point shaving to beat UNLV. It took a Duke team that, with the addition of Hill, was every bit as talented as the Runnin' Rebels.

Wisconsin might be less talented than Kentucky – but the Badgers can come closest of anyone in the nation to match the Wildcats in terms of quality size. The Badgers are big, and the Badgers' bigs can play. The matchup of Wisconsin's top-rated offense – led by 7-foot AP Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky and 6-9 Sam Dekker – against Kentucky's top-rated defense – led by 7-footers Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns – will be fascinating. Since this matchup went from dream stage to real last Saturday, the Badgers have understated their revenge motives.

Frank Kaminsky has scored 91 points in his first four games of the tournament. (AP)
Frank Kaminsky has scored 91 points in his first four games of the tournament. (AP)

"To lose in the way we did on a last-second shot, left a sour taste," Kaminsky said. "It was a motivating factor to get back to this stage. Just luck of the draw we get to play Kentucky again."

Having talked to them in February, they made little secret then how much they desired this rematch. This is the game the Badgers have wanted for 364 days.

Like the fingers of Josh Gasser and Aaron Harrison on that fateful play last April, these two programs have been interlocked for a year. Each has rolled through great seasons, seemingly on a rematch collision course that the NCAA selection committee facilitated. We'll see whether Wisconsin can do unto Kentucky what Duke did unto UNLV on a memorable April night 24 years ago.