By Anthony Gimino
Special for Tucson News Now
LOS ANGELES -- When Wisconsin's Sam Dekker, floating to his left, arched a 3-pointer through the net with just under two minutes left, Arizona coach Sean Miller had the only appropriate response. He pointed to Dekker and nodded his head in a show of respect.
That basket pushed the Badgers' lead from five points to eight points, but Dekker still had one more dagger to deliver.
With the Wisconsin lead again at 5 with 51 seconds left, Miller went all in on his defense. "No fouls!" he yelled. "No fouls." Gambling on getting a stop, their NCAA Tournament lives in the balance, the Wildcats hounded Wisconsin as the shot clock ticked down. Five, four …
And then Dekker, launching a rainbow that fell gently from the Staples Center rafters, hit another 3-pointer.
This time, Miller just smiled as if to say, "What can you do?" and "Can you freakin' believe this?!"
In a shooting performance for the ages, Wisconsin ushered Arizona out of the West regional final for the second season in a row, this time winning 85-78 while making a kazillion 3-point shots in the second half.
Well, maybe not a kazillion, but let's just say that Wisconsin made so many that when Miller noted in his post-game press conference that the Badgers had nailed eight in the second half, the moderator had to correct him.
"Ten," he said.
"I mean, my God, there were so many threes going in," Miller said.
The Wisconsin shooting performance -- 10 of 12 from behind the arc in the second half; 15 of 19 overall after halftime -- joins Arizona's Hall of Broken Dreams.
There's Anderson Hunt in one corner. Utah's triangle-and-two defense in another. The inexplicable 2-for-13 shooting performance from Steve Kerr against Oklahoma. The late-game meltdown against Illinois. Jamelle Horne's last-second missed 3 vs. UConn. Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky last season. Now, Dekker's daggers.
Frank the Tank was back to do more damage Saturday at the Staples Center, drawing two quick fouls on Brandon Ashley and actually bettering the 28-point performance he had last season against Arizona. Kaminsky scored 29.
That, combined with the 6-foot-9 Dekker shooting 5 of 5 from 3-point land in the second half, was too much for an Arizona team denied at the doorstep once again.
"Any team that can make a run like that, when they are making shots contested, they deserve to win," said Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, adding that UA gave up some open looks, too.
"You can make the case that some of the time we were in the right spot, but they just made the impossible happen," Hollis-Jefferson said.
Mostly, there is nothing to do except tip the cap to Wisconsin, but there will also be focus on what Arizona did wrong. The main thing being it didn't have two of Hollis-Jefferson.
He started off guarding Dekker but also saw time on Kaminsky. Arizona has never had anyone like Hollis-Jefferson. He can guard a 6-foot guard who averages 20 points, and he can guard a 7-footer who is a potential national player of the year.
"One minute, I'm on Frank, then Sam is going off," Hollis-Jefferson said. "And then I have to switch to Sam, and then Frank's going off. I mean, I can't guard both players (at once). It's pretty much a tough situation we were in. We didn't have an answer."
So, the ride is over. Arizona ends at 34-4. The Cats are 67-9 in the past two seasons. But they have lost in a regional final in three of the past five seasons. They are winless in their past five regional finals, dating to 2003.
That unwanted moniker of "Best Current Coach to Not Play in the Final Four" will only be further glued to Miller's name. He also bowed out in the Elite Eight while at Xavier.
"I mean, when you lose in this game, it's hard," Miller said. "You lose four times in seven years, and that's probably a record, right?"
When senior point guard T.J. McConnell left the court for the final time in his career, with nine seconds left, he was in tears as he hugged Miller and apologized for not getting his coach and his team to the Final Four.
"I just felt down that I couldn't get him there," McConnell said.
The Wisconsin loss feels very much like a closing of a chapter. McConnell is gone. There were no official proclamations, but freshman Stanley Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson are sure to take their talents to the NBA. Less sure is the status of Ashley and center Kaleb Tarczewski, both juniors.
"I feel for all the seniors and all the people who are leaving next year," said junior guard Gabe York. "This team is never going to be together again. We did a lot of special things."
But not enough.
In a fact that will take months, if not years, to digest, the Badgers scored 55 second-half points against one of the best defensive teams in the country.
Said York: "We fell short. We wanted more."
Said Johnson: "I didn't come here to lose in the Elite Eight."
Said Hollis-Jefferson: "We wanted to get Coach over the hump to the final four. Came up short again. It's kind of tough."
It does seem to be a matter of when, and not if, Miller gets Arizona to the Final Four. But Saturday was not that day. It was Wisconsin's day.
"No kid should walk out of there with anything other than their head held high," Miller said. "Maybe the fifth time I get back, I'll break through."