With the cover on the line, Frank Kaminsky calmly sank two free throws. Obviously, the 7-footer had no clue what the second shot meant, but he put the money ball in the bank.
Frank “The Tank” came up big when Wisconsin bettors needed it. Six seconds remained on the clock. The Badgers, favored by 6 to 6½ points, led by five. The win was in hand, and Kaminsky added the cover.
When the bet is graded, all that matters is the final score. Wisconsin walked off with a 79-72 victory over North Carolina on Thursday, when ’dog players were left with a worthless ticket and a ridiculous bad-beat story.
“That’s awful,” said Wynn Las Vegas sports book director John Avello, who needed the Tar Heels. “They were in control the entire game. Down one with a minute to go. That was a loser.”
Tony Miller, director of the Golden Nugget book, where Wisconsin fans tend to congregate, said, “If North Carolina wins that game, we’re a massive winner. I thought they would at least cover. I’m ticked off.”
The good news is the public put that one in the win column.
By the end of the night, Avello, Miller and their colleagues were feeling better. In general, the bookmakers needed Notre Dame, Xavier and, to a lesser extent, Kentucky to cover. The books took three of four.
The Badgers’ biggest lead of the game was the final margin, which is why wagering on the NCAA Tournament can be equally as maddening as the NFL. There are unfair point-spread decisions everywhere, but that’s also part of the game, and we sign up for it at the window.
Wisconsin trailed by seven with 10½ minutes to go and led 71-70 after Marcus Paige hit a 3-pointer for the Tar Heels with 54 seconds left. Kaminsky was 4-for-4 at the line in the final 16 seconds, and North Carolina threw up two futile attempts from 3.
To most TV commentators, Kaminsky made two meaningless shots. Brent Musburger knows better.
The bottom line is the Badgers took care of business at the free-throw line by hitting 20 of 23, and they had the two best players on the floor. Sam Dekker finished with 23 points and 10 rebounds, and Kaminsky had 19 points and eight rebounds.
The game within the game — the drama of the point-spread result — is a big part of what makes this so great and so agonizing. But it’s never cool for grown men to whine. So turn the page and move on to the next one.
Wisconsin’s win sets up a huge rematch with Arizona in the Elite Eight. The Wildcats, 11½-point favorites, survived a scare by rallying late to beat Xavier 68-60.
Avello opened Arizona as a 1½-point favorite over Wisconsin. He opened Kentucky as a 9½-point favorite over Notre Dame, and the line quickly moved to 11.
The Fighting Irish opened the night by shooting down Wichita State 81-70. The Shockers, heavily supported as 2-point favorites, obviously lost their edge four days after winning the state championship of Kansas.
Still, it’s not a fluke that Notre Dame beat Duke twice and North Carolina twice this season. The Irish beat the Blue Devils and Tar Heels back-to-back in what were basically road games en route to the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title.
“I was really impressed with them,” Avello said. “Notre Dame looked great and played a lights-out game.”
The Irish will need an even better game to take down No. 1 Kentucky, which whipped West Virginia 78-39. Eight minutes into the game, it was 18-2, and there was no doubt Kentucky would cover the 13-point line, go to 37-0 and make a joke of the Mountaineers’ trash talk.
“People were betting the West Virginia side and money line like they were going to win easy,” Miller said. “I don’t get it.”
In today’s early games, Louisville is a 2½-point favorite over North Carolina State, and Gonzaga is laying 8½ to UCLA. The major decisions for the books will come in the late games. Duke is a 5-point favorite over Utah, and Michigan State is a 2-point favorite over Oklahoma.
“We’re heavy on Michigan State. We’re heavy on the Duke side, money line, parlays and teasers,” Avello said. “By early indications, we’re going to need UCLA, Utah and Oklahoma.”
The public seems ready to ride Tom Izzo, a money coach in March, and the Spartans.
“To me, Izzo has got a free ticket to the Final Four,” Miller said. “I think it’s going to come down to Kentucky and Michigan State.”
But, who knows, it might come down to Wisconsin and Duke. If so, the Badgers and their bettors would want Kaminsky shooting free throws in the final seconds.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports betting columnist Matt Youmans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.