LOS ANGELES — Wisconsin looked like a beaten team for much of the game.
Frank Kaminsky got off to a slow start, his team couldn’t make a shot in the first half and then fell behind by seven midway through the second half.
It looked like a repeat of the Big Ten Conference title game, when the Badgers were left for road kill against Michigan State before coming back to win in overtime.
The top-seeded Badgers again proved their grit, rallying in the final 10 minutes to hold off North Carolina 79-72 Thursday night and advance to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.
Sam Dekker had a career-high 23 points and 10 rebounds, Kaminsky added 19 and Nigel Hayes 12 to send Wisconsin (34-3) into the West Regional final Saturday against No. 2 seed Arizona.
“The toughness that they showed today was really something,” Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “It’s strange, the difference between winning and losing is so small.”
Marcus Paige hit consecutive 3-pointers that drew Carolina within one with 54 seconds to go, but Wisconsin made all eight of its free throws — four by Kaminsky — over the closing seconds.
“Everyone knows that once we get to free throw time at the end of the game, we’ve got to make our free throws or they’re going to come down and score,” Kaminsky said. “We’ve been through that a lot this season with situations like that. So it’s just nice to be able to go out there and do it.”
Zak Showalter came off the bench to score six points in the Badgers’ 19-7 comeback run after they were forced into tough positions by Carolina’s perimeter defense.
“The plays he made for us in that two-minute span, we wouldn’t have won without them,” Hayes said. “This was similar to the Michigan State game except it didn’t go to overtime. We weren’t really playing our type of basketball. We were letting them have their way and their will. All we needed was a couple
plays to get us going.”
The teams shot exactly the same — 46 percent — for the game, but the Badgers improved to 58 percent in the second half and made 20 of 23 free throws to keep their hopes of a second straight Final Four berth alive.
“These guys have been through a lot. They’ve seen the good runs. They’ve seen the bad runs,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. “But this group never gets discouraged to the point where they get down on themselves or their teammates, and that’s what’s fun.”
Brice Johnson and Justin Jackson scored 15 points each for the fourth-seeded Tar Heels (26-12), who got within one with 4:21 remaining but couldn’t retake the lead. Paige finished with 12 points.
“We wanted to pressure them and not allow them to be comfortable, and we did that for the most part,” Paige said. “The problem was we couldn’t finish our defense on key possessions.”
The Tar Heels appeared to have the game in hand when they were up by seven and Kaminsky went down with his hands covering his eyes, having gotten hit by Isaiah Hicks.
Turns out “Frank the Tank” was just getting his team revved up.
With Kaminsky on the bench, the Badgers launched the 19-7 run that put them back in front, 65-60. Kaminsky quickly returned to hit a 3-pointer, and Showalter scored four straight, including a layup off his own steal, putting the red-clad Wisconsin fans in full-throated cheers.
“It’s just great to have so many voices understanding what needs to happen and what we need to do out on the court, which was getting stops,” Kaminsky said, “and then coming down and getting good, easy looks at the bucket and we were able to do so.”
Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks returned from a sprained left knee last weekend to bother Kaminsky early before getting in foul trouble.
Trailing by one, the Tar Heels outscored the Badgers 14-6 to take their largest lead, 53-46. Berry and Hicks had four apiece while the Badgers struggled to make a shot.
Kaminsky got hit on his layup that ended Carolina’s run. He covered his face, but eventually got up and played the rest of the game with an eye that was open even less than his usual sleepy appearance.
Dekker carried the Badgers offensively with 15 points in the first half, including a layup that just beat the buzzer to pull Wisconsin within 33-31, just the sixth time the Badgers trailed at the break this season.
“I just tried to stay on attack mode,” Dekker said. “My shot wasn’t falling like I’d like it to be, so I just tried to take it to the lane more and get some easy buckets and just cause a difference in there.”
Neither team led by more than five points in the first half, when Carolina shot 50 percent.
North Carolina: The Tar Heels fell to 4-2 as a fourth seed in the tournament.
* Alums Rick Fox, Antawn Jamison and Eric Montross chatted at halftime.
Wisconsin: Dekker shot 10-of-15 for a career high in field goals made.
* G Traevon Jackson returned after an 18-game absence due to injury and scored four points.
* Packers QB Aaron Rodgers was in the house, along with Cal Ripken Jr. and Billy Crystal.
Asked about the enthusiastic Rodgers sitting behind the Badgers’ bench, Ryan joked, “Aaron Rodgers? The guy that, not Erin Andrews? It was Aaron Rodgers behind our bench.”
Wisconsin 79, North Carolina 72
NORTH CAROLINA (26-12): Meeks 1-4 2-2 4, Paige 4-11 1-2 12, Johnson 7-9 1-2 15, Tokoto 2-6 0-0 4, Jackson 6-11 0-0 15, Britt 1-4 2-2 4, Pinson 0-1 1-2 1, Berry II 2-3 3-4 9, Hicks 2-5 2-4 6, James 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 26-56 12-18 72.
WISCONSIN (34-3): Hayes 3-11 6-7 12, Dekker 10-15 2-2 23, Gasser 2-4 0-0 6, Koenig 2-9 3-4 9, Kaminsky 5-11 8-8 19, Showalter 3-3 0-0 6, Jackson 1-3 1-2 4, Dukan 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 26-56 20-23 79.
Halftime—North Carolina 33-31. 3-Point Goals—North Carolina 8-13 (Jackson 3-3, Paige 3-5, Berry II 2-3, Britt 0-1, Pinson 0-1), Wisconsin 7-21 (Gasser 2-3, Koenig 2-6, Kaminsky 1-1, Jackson 1-2, Dekker 1-5, Hayes 0-4). Fouled Out—Koenig. Rebounds—North Carolina 28 (Hicks 6), Wisconsin 35 (Dekker 10). Assists—North Carolina 12 (Berry II, Jackson, Paige, Tokoto 3), Wisconsin 13 (Gasser, Koenig 4). Total Fouls—North Carolina 20, Wisconsin 18.