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Brian Burnsed | | April 5, 2015

Throw the body

Champ. Countdown: Sam Dekker 1-on-1

INDIANAPOLIS -- Sam Dekker, laid flat on the hardwood by Trey Lyles’ 235-pound frame, sprang -- no, erupted -- to his feet.

Dekker’s six-feet-nine-inches of sinew and energy and confidence surged forward, his adrenaline manifesting as a full sprint.

Chin up, he bounded towards euphoric Wisconsin students, looking as if he might dive off the Final Four stage -- that doubles as a basketball court -- and fall into their waiting arms before he stopped 20 feet short of the edge and gazed out at them.  

Dekker had just taken a charge with 85 seconds left in the national semifinal.

It came 19 seconds after he faked a drive to his right and took a massive step back, forcing Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns off balance, and burying the 3-pointer from the top of the key that gave Wisconsin a three-point lead against undefeated, unstoppable, infallible, 38-0 Kentucky.

Those two plays, those 19 seconds, were integral to Wisconsin making history -- rather than becoming a footnote.

“It didn't matter who was in front of us,” Dekker said after the Badgers’ 71-64 win.

Dekker’s moments -- the ones that will be replayed and remembered for years -- wouldn’t have been possible without the dirty work, the work that will be forgotten, that his frontcourt mates did throughout the game.

Through the season, Kentucky averaged 7.3 more rebounds than their opponents. On Saturday night, the rebounding margin was 12 -- in Wisconsin’s favor. The Badgers swallowed 12 offensive rebounds, doubling Kentucky’s total.

Those rebounds led to 13 second-chance points -- seven more than the Wildcats could muster. Fittingly, that figure matched Wisconsin’s margin of victory.

“I think what impacted the game the most was Wisconsin and how they played. I mean, they out-rebounded us by 12 rebounds. That doesn't happen,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “[The difference] was the rebounding and the toughness and the plays around the goal.”

What is toughness? It is Kentucky center Willie Cauley-Stein begging for the ball in the post, but catching it with a heel on the 3-point line. Dekker muscled him away from the basket, his comfort zone, and Cauley-Stein was whistled for traveling as he tried to make up the ground he had ceded.  

Toughness was Dekker carving a path through Kentucky’s defensive thicket early in the first half, flexing after making a leaner and absorbing a foul. That thicket, made up of four rotation players standing at least 6-foot-10, had held opponents to 53.9 points per game this season, third best in the nation.

But with a made shot and a flexed bicep, Dekker made clear that Wisconsin was undaunted by daunting stats and long arms. Soon after, Calipari was squatting low on the sideline, hands pressed firmly together in front of his face as if he was praying. “Please! Settle down!” he screamed, hands and head shaking. “Please!”

Eventually, the Wildcats did settle and the teams traded blows until the score was knotted at 60. Then Dekker let his 3 fly. “Off my hand, I knew it was down,” he said.

“He just knows when to step up at the right moment,” Wisconsin forward Nigel Hayes said.

The moment couldn’t have existed, though, without Hayes. He grabbed four of those crucial offensive rebounds, doing the yeoman’s work that would later afford his teammate the opportunity to step up: to step back and hit a 3, to slide over and take a charge, to sprint forward towards the Wisconsin faithful, eyes affixed on the ultimate prize.

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