Top-ranked Wisconsin overcame a stagnant first half to surge late in the game—including a 9-0 run in the last five minutes—to defeat no. 4 UNC and secure a spot in the Elite Eight held in Los Angeles later this weekend.
Wisconsin small forward Sam Dekker was the only standout on the court in the first half, with an impressive 15 points and 6 rebounds before halftime. Dekker had a height advantage over his UNC matchup J.P Tokoto, and ended the game with a career-high 23 points and 10 rebounds, the junior’s first double-double. He had not showcased his best stretch of basketball leading up to the tournament, but his impressive all-around offensive play against UNC not only vaulted Wisconsin to the Elite Eight, but also caught the eye of some high profile fans. “[Aaron Rodgers] was talking to me this morning, saying he wants a good show tonight and he’s been so supportive all year. He’s really gotten our backs, and reaching out to me if I’m not playing well, if I’m playing well, and staying behind me as a good friend. So when you have the MVP of the NFL doing that for you it’s pretty cool,” Dekker told TBS sideline correspondent Rachel Nichols in a postgame interview. Prior to the game, Dekker and Rodgers had bantered over Twitter, with Dekker ultimately taunting, “You have nothing on me . . . you’ll see this week in LA.” After displaying the most dynamic performance on the court against UNC, Dekker surely did not disappoint
Wisconsin forward Frank Kaminsky added 19 points and backup point guard Zak Showalter, surprisingly, scored a critical 6 points in three-minutes in the second half that catalyzed the Badgers’ surge.
UNC’s Marcus “Second Half” Paige threatened a rally when he hit a pair of threes to close the margin to one with less than a minute left to play. Paige, alongside Kaminsky, had a quiet first half. Paige was 1-for-5 for 3 points, and Kaminsky 2-for-7 with 4 points going into halftime, but Paige’s outside shooting in the second half had Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan worried. “We knew we were in a situation where Paige was going to shoot those threes no matter how deep they were. When he made those two in a row, we simply said ‘Well we got to go out at him and don’t let him catch it anywhere on half court. That might sound extreme, but that’s how tough he is,” Ryan told Nichols.
The opening West regional Sweet 16 matchup was back-and-forth and well-fought, and UNC certainly looked the more composed and cohesive side before the break, but Sam Dekker and the Badgers, who are top-seeded for the first time in the university’s history, ultimately stifled the Tar Heels’ comeback attempt—who led by as many as 7 points at one point even in the second half. Wisconsin will face either no. 2 Arizona or no. 6 Xavier in Los Angeles on Saturday.