INDIANAPOLIS - Some of his Wisconsin teammates refused to watch replays of the Badgers' one-point loss to Kentucky in the national semifinals a year ago. Sam Dekker couldn't get enough of it.
"I watched it a bunch," Dekker said. "It helped me get over it a little quicker. At the same time, it made me realize we were one possession away from playing for a national title, and that is attainable."
Wisconsin had to end Kentucky's 38-game winning streak to do it, but Dekker led the rally that put Wisconsin (36-3) in Monday night's title game against Duke (34-4) at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Badgers played in rematches against three opponents they met in last season's tournament, so it was fitting in the final they were playing a rematch of their 80-70 loss to the Blue Devils on Dec. 3 in Madison.
Dekker was slowed by an ankle injury in that game and scored only five points. But he was healthy Monday night and had improved his season scoring average of 13.9 points to 20.6 points through the first five tournament games.
The Badgers went more than six minutes without scoring in the second half against Kentucky, but Dekker ignited their 15-4 closing run with a layup and the three-pointer that gave them the lead for good in their 71-64 win.
Since he was in grade school, Dekker said, he has had a knack for taking and making the big shot. His teammates know the story of how he led Sheboygan Lutheran to the Wisconsin state D5 title as a senior, scoring 40 points, including 12 in the final 50 seconds to wipe out an eight-point deficit.
"We were down eight with about 45 seconds left," Dekker recalled. "We managed to get some luck with them missing free throws. I was able to get hot and hit some shots down the stretch. That was a cool moment for me and a cool moment for my dad [Todd], being the coach."
In the West Regional final, Dekker hit five of six three-pointers and scored 27 points, combining with Frank Kaminsky's 29-point performance to get the Badgers past Arizona to the Final Four. So when the moment of truth arrived against Kentucky, Dekker calmly knocked down the step-back, go-ahead three.
"I'm not going to be afraid of that moment," Dekker said. "That's something, as a player, you've got to love. People get remembered for that stuff, so I have a lot of confidence and I'm not going to shy away from any of that."
While much of the pregame focus was on the matchup in the middle between national player of the year Kaminsky and Duke center Jahlil Okafor, who is a potential No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft, stopping Dekker was a major priority for Duke. As hot as Dekker has been for Wisconsin during the tournament, Blue Devils freshman counterpart Justise Winslow also has seen his draft stock rise with his all-around performance at both ends of the floor.
Recalling his early-season matchup with Dekker, Winslow said: "We both kind of struggled on the offensive end. He had an injury, but I was just young. I've matured a lot since that first game, especially on offense.
"I'm excited to play him. I want to play him. He's a great player, great athlete, great scorer, so I'll never shy from the opportunity to face a great player . . . What's scary about him is his ability to perform on the big stage."
Dekker and the Badgers certainly did that in gaining their revenge against Kentucky, but they still needed one more step to reach their ultimate goal.
"We thought last year was a good season, but we still called it a failure because it ended with a loss," Dekker said. "We set our goals this year and are one step from our final one. It's pretty cool what we've done to this point, but if we lose [to Duke], it's back to the same reality."