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Tom Oates column: Badgers proved they belonged on the big stage

Wisconsin Badgers forward Sam Dekker (15) and guard Josh Gasser (21) walk across the court after the Kentucky Wildcats celebrates after the semifinals of the Final Four in the 2014 NCAA Mens Division I Championship tournament Saturday in Arlington, Texas. (Kevin Jairaj / USA TODAY Sports)

The last time the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team reached the Final Four, it was an outsider, an interloper, a mystery guest.

A lock-down defensive team, the Badgers of 2000 just didn’t have the firepower to compete with the elite teams in college basketball at that time.

But when Jon Bryant got hot in the NCAA tournament, UW reeled off four victories and showed up at the Final Four, where the magic ran out against eventual champion Michigan State. Still, there was a lingering sense that UW, an eighth seed, didn’t really belong in such fast company.

No such feeling existed this year. UW’s four-game run to the Final Four, while difficult at times, surprised absolutely no one. It’s never a surprise when a No. 2 seed shows up on the big stage, especially one that impressed everyone along the way with its skill and toughness.

And if no one else was surprised UW made it to expansive AT&T Stadium for a semifinal game against Kentucky on Saturday night, the Badgers certainly weren’t. Not after their victory over top-seeded Arizona in last week’s regional final.

“Arizona’s been one of the best teams in the country all year long, so we know we can beat anyone on any given night,” UW guard Josh Gasser said at the time. “That’s important to know.”

Indeed, it was. UW suffered a heart-breaking 74-73 loss to Kentucky before a roaring Final Four record crowd of 79,444 Saturday, but nothing that happened during the 40-minute thriller can change the notion that UW has arrived.

The Badgers showed they belonged on the biggest stage in the sport by playing even-up with what is easily the most talented team in the country. Despite giving up size and athleticism to the Wildcats, they succumbed only after Kentucky’s proven big-time shot-maker, freshman Aaron Harrison, drilled a late 3-pointer and its own proven big-time shot-maker, guard Traevon Jackson, saw his 17-foot attempt hit the backboard and bounce off the rim as the buzzer sounded.

It was a shot Jackson, his teammates and coach Bo Ryan wanted. It just didn’t go in.

That allowed Kentucky to continue its march through the tournament, a run that was unexpected only because the Wildcats’ talented young players had taken so long to gel.

Still, they had beaten previously undefeated Wichita State, defending national champion Louisville and Big Ten Conference champion Michigan — the latter two on long 3s by Harrison — in the three games before reaching the Final Four.

Eighth-seeded Kentucky will meet seventh-seeded Connecticut tonight in a national final matching teams that started playing to their potential only at tournament time.

UW, meanwhile, will go home knowing it had a 30-8 team that was inches away from playing for the national championship and — hopefully, anyway — returns every key player except guard Ben Brust.

“Our biggest takeaway is that we did have a great team,” center Frank Kaminsky said. “This year was a great year. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had as part of a team. We had great team play. We got punched and punched back the whole season. We showed flashes of how great we can be, and I think that will mean a lot for us next year.”

In the somber locker room, next year became a topic for a team that thought it should be playing tonight. It could have, too, had a play or two gone differently.

Still, this UW team gave its fans legitimate hope that it was a potential national champion and even won over many national media types who had been critical of its play over the years.

“We had a special group,” forward Sam Dekker said. “It was a great ride. It makes me even want to get back here even more, especially with these guys, with the bond we have. I can’t wait for next season to start.”

Some people wanted to turn Saturday’s game into a morality play, one that pitted UW’s four-year student-athletes against Kentucky’s one-and-done, NBA-bound mercenaries. But this wasn’t a morality play. It was a basketball war in which both teams used their strengths to hold the upper hand at times.

Although UW had beaten Florida, Arizona and Virginia — three of the four NCAA No. 1 seeds — this season, Kentucky presented a special challenge. The Wildcats’ all-freshman lineup had enough talent that it was voted the preseason No. 1. It wasn’t until the last month or so that the young Wildcats started playing like a team deserving of that honor.

Over 40 minutes, there was only one stretch where UW allowed Kentucky to use its size and athleticism to dominate the game. Dekker open the second half with a 3 ball to give UW a 43-36 lead, but Kentucky scored the next 15 points — most at the basket, most unbelievably athletic — to go up by eight.

But the Badgers, as they have done all season, gathered themselves and came back, getting key plays from just about everyone along the way.

Two late turnovers prevented UW from putting the game away before the final seconds, but even though Jackson couldn’t re-create the shot he sank to beat Michigan State earlier in the season, there was no one saying afterward that UW couldn’t play with Kentucky.

That’s good to know, because there’s no reason UW can’t be back in the Final Four again next season.

Tom Oates is a sports columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal.