ARLINGTON, Texas — Before Traevon Jackson’s last-second shot spun off the rim, before Aaron Harrison hit another dramatic 3-pointer to give his team a lead late in the game, there was a play that personified Kentucky’s 74-73 national semifinal victory against Wisconsin on Saturday night as Harrison lobbed a pass in the direction of teammate Marcus Lee.
Guarding Lee was Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky. The West Region’s Most Outstanding Player, Kaminsky backpedaled as Lee glided closer to the hoop.
With his back facing Lee, Kaminsky leaped with both hands in the air, hoping to grab the ball rather than swat.
As Harrison’s pass reached the two big men, Lee extended his arms and grabbed the ball, throwing down a two-handed dunk over the head of Kaminsky.
Lee’s dunk was one of 46 Kentucky points in the paint. Lee, along with Kentucky big men Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress, combined to score 38 of their team’s 74 points.
Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan was blunt in his depiction of how Kentucky used its size to its advantage.
“Well, they didn’t exploit it. They just used it,” Ryan said. “I mean, it’s not like you didn’t know. It’s just very difficult to try when they’re putting their heads down or they’re driving in there as hard as they can, and we’re trying to get our bodies in front.”
Those four also shared duties guarding Kaminsky, who had his worst game of the 2014 NCAA tournament. Kaminsky, who came into Saturday’s contest averaging 18.5 points and six rebounds per game in tournament play, finished with eight points and five rebounds. His eight points tied for his lowest offensive output of the tournament, when he scored eight points in a 75-35 win against American in the second round.
Kaminsky took only one shot in the first half, an up-and-under layup.
Kentucky made sure Kaminsky didn’t get the ball down low on the block, and when he did, one or more Wildcats would swarm Kaminsky, forcing him to pass. For the game, Kaminsky took only seven shots.
When it was over, he sat in his uniform in front of his dressing stall, hands clasped in front of him. His head was down and his voice was soft. “We played well,” he said, “but we didn’t play well enough to win. … We just didn’t make enough plays on the inside.
“I knew they were going to game plan for me and my teammates. They devised a good enough game plan to win.”
When asked about Kentucky’s presence inside, Kaminsky said, “They’re great basketball players. They were physical inside. They know how to play. That’s why they’re going to the NBA.”
Kentucky head coach John Calipari said the plan was for the Wildcats to throw several defenders at Kaminsky throughout the game.
“Well, one, I thought Dakari could play him some,” Calipari said. “Dakari could put that big body on him a little bit. Then we wanted to play all kinds of different people on him. We wanted Alex to guard him some, we wanted Julius to guard him some.”
Kaminsky and Wisconsin were held to 24 points in the paint. And even though Wisconsin matched the number of defensive rebounds Kentucky grabbed with 21, the Wildcats pulled down 11 offensive rebounds. Those additional opportunities led to 23 second-chance points for Kentucky, compared to 10 for Wisconsin.
Wisconsin’s Duje Dukan scored eight points and managed five rebounds in 15 minutes of game time. The junior forward Dukan said Kentucky’s aggressiveness on the offensive glass came back to bite the Badgers.
“You can look at so much film, and you can watch them, but the amount of force they come with and how aggressive they are to the glass you really can’t emulate that in any other way until you experience it,” Dukan said. “We talked about it as one thing that we needed to address. I think that was definitely one thing that they killed us on, and it definitely hurt us.”
Wisconsin made six more 3-pointers than Kentucky did. The Badgers had more assists, more blocks and made 19 of their 20 free-throw attempts. The miss, the first of three attempts by Jackson with 16.4 seconds to play, became a difference in the game.
Trailing with 1:15 to play, Kaminsky tried to overcome the threshold of the Kentucky front line. After Jackson missed a mid-range jumper, Kaminsky pulled down the offensive rebound and scored, tying the game at 71. It would be Wisconsin’s last field goal of the game.
Harrison’s game-winning 3-point shot over Josh Gasser immediately became part of Kentucky history. But the game was won in the paint, where the imposing Wildcats soared over Kaminsky and his teammates to earn a chance to win a ninth NCAA championship.