ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (Ticker) -- Wisconsin became the lowest-seeded team to reach the Final Four in 14 years as it defeated Big Ten Conference rival Purdue, 64-60, in the NCAA Tournament's West Region final at "The Pit." The eighth-seeded Badgers (22-13) will play in college basketball's showcase event for the first time since winning the 1941 national championship.
In fact, 1941 was the last time they had won two consecutive postseason games until reaching the Big Ten tournament semifinals earlier this month. Now Wisconsin is riding a four-game postseason winning streak.
"There really aren't any words," Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett said. "I could not be happier, prouder. The game unfolded as I thought it would and once we got control of the basketball and didn't turn it over in the second half, then I thought we had a chance if we didn't get killed on the boards." The Badgers did not score from the field after Roy Boone's short jumper gave them a 56-53 lead with 2:47 to play. However, the Boilermakers missed several 3-point attempts and Wisconsin went 8-of-11 from the foul line in the final 1:25.
Carson Cunningham drilled an off-balance 3-pointer with 11.5 seconds remaining to bring the Boilermakers within 63-60. But Mike Kelley made the first of two free throws with 10.6 seconds to play, sealing the victory.
Wisconsin will play either Big Ten member Michigan State or Iowa State at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis next Saturday.
Purdue (24-10) was trying to become the first school since Duke in 1994 to participate in a Final Four in its home state. But the Boilermakers allowed Jon Bryant to make five 3-pointers overall and managed just eight points in the final 5:23.
"I'm just in awe right now," said Bryant, a senior guard from Plymouth, Minnesota who scored a game-high 18 points. "Who would have thought this was possible? A month an a half ago we were just trying to get into the tournament and now we're going to the Final Four." The Badgers are the lowest-seeded team to reach the Final Four since No. 11 Louisiana State in 1986 and the first eighth seed since Villanova won the national championship in 1985.
"I hope it's a repeat of the '85 tournament and we can do what Villanova did," Badgers junior forward Andy Kowske said.
Wisconsin's 13 losses are the most for a Final Four team since the seeding process began in 1979.
Purdue was appearing in its second regional final under coach Gene Keady, who has led the school to five "Sweet 16" showings since taking over the program in 1981. But the Boilermakers again failed to reach the Final Four for the first time since 1980.
"We just try to play great basketball and if that gets you to the Final Four, great. If not, you move on," Keady said. "There's always reasons why you lose. We faced a team today that probably if we faced any other team in America we would have been better off, expect maybe Michigan State." "It was very intense. Like coach said they got the job done on defense and we didn't," said Purdue forward Mike Robinson, who had 12 points and four assists. "It's something we try not to think about right now because the season's over. It's not like we can go back out there again." Brian Cardinal, who broke down in tears during the postgame news conference, tried his best to lift his coach and fellow teammates by scoring all 13 of his points in the second half. His last point came on a free throw with 3:01 left that pulled the Boilermakers within 54-43.
But Boone, who grew up right outside the Wisconsin campus in Madison, nailed his jumper and combined with Mark Vershaw to go 4-of-4 from the line, pushing Wisconsin's advantage to 60-53 with 1:08 remaining.
Kowske collected 14 points and eight rebounds and Boone scored 12 points for the Badgers, whose trademark stellar defense held Purdue to 40 percent (21-of-53) shooting from the floor, including 7-of-23 from beyond the arc.
"We got a great lift off the bench from Ray Boone and we just simply gutted it out," added Bennett.
The Badgers overcame 15 turnovers and 13-of-24 foul shooting by connecting on 47 percent (22-of-47) from the field and holding a 35-33 rebounding advantage.
"I felt that the key to this game was our ability to take better care of the basketball in the second half," said Bennett. "The first half they were forcing too many turnovers with intense defense and we were rushing a bit. We talked about trying to get a shot every time in the second half." Bryant was at his best early, nailing three 3-pointers in the opening 3:38. Wisconsin built a 16-9 lead on Kowske's follow dunk with 13:42 to play before halftime.
"My biggest thing was just trying to get open because Purdue plays such great defense that it's difficult to get open," said Bryant. "I felt good in warmups, I had some good rhythm and they just were going down for me." Meanwhile, Kowske was clamping down on Cardinal and Kelley was frustrating Jaraan Cornell. Purdue's top two scorers were held to a combined three points in the opening 20 minutes.
"Wisconsin is a great team, awfully good on defense," said Cardinal. "Kowske is a hard-nosed kid. I got a couple early fouls I guess, if that's what you call them. My hat's off to them." Cornell struggled for the third straight time against the Badgers. He finished 1-of-9 from the field, with his only points coming on a 3-pointer with just over nine minutes to go in the first half.
"I didn't change anything," said Kelley. "All year long we've been staying with the same structure defense. I just tried my best to stay in (Cornell's) face as best I could." "(Cornell) has trouble with them and we don't give him much help," said Keady. "It has a lot to do with our screening and our plays. It's not all his fault." Despite his struggles, Cornell's 3-pointer did give Purdue a 19-18 lead. Maurice Linton answered with a 3-pointer of his own to ignite a 7-0 run by Wisconsin.
The Badgers took a 31-28 lead into intermisson and after a back-and-forth second half took the lead for good at 54-52 on Kowske's layup with 5:01 to play.
Purdue shot just 34 percent (11-of-32) in the second half.
"They had a tremendous season," Keady said of his team. "I'm very proud of them. They fought their hearts out all year. Probably the most fun team I've ever coached at Purdue." Wisconsin won three of four meetings between the schools this season, including a 78-66 triumph in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament 15 days ago. Purdue leads the all-time series, 94-56.