- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Keith Bogans was behind a closed door, his left ankle and shin becoming close, personal friends with a bag of ice. "He'll talk to y'all tomorrow," said a Kentucky spokesman.
Tomorrow? Tomorrow almost took a pass on the top-seeded Wildcats. Tomorrow nearly meant spending the day -- and the rest of March Madness -- back in Lexington listening to the anguished hysteria from UK fans wanting to know just how Ashley Judd's favorite team lost to the Cheeseheads from Wisconsin in the Midwest Regional semifinal.
Instead, Kentucky did itself proud by squeezing past a fifth-seeded Badgers team responsible for putting at least one or two more worry lines on coach Tubby Smith's face Thursday evening at the Metrodome. The Wildcats' 26th consecutive win -- the longest in the nation (not counting Warren Buffett) -- didn't come easily. In fact, it nearly didn't come at all.
Kentucky is accustomed to double-digit victories, not last-minute sweatfests. Its previous 25 wins came by an average of 17.3 points. And nobody during the postseason had shot better than 39 percent against Big Blue. You figured the Wildcats would dispose of Bo Ryan's team like a paper plate and take their rightful place in Elite Eight office pool brackets everywhere.
It was a nice assumption, except for the part about the Badgers quietly and meekly leaving the premises.
"Do you feel like you survived, or won?" someone asked Kentucky guard Cliff Hawkins.
"We survived," he said. "And won."
You'd be hard-pressed to find a UK win in that hellacious streak that resembled this one.
When is the last time Kentucky played on a neutral court and its legendary (and occasionally psycho) fans were outnumbered, what, 3 to 1 ... 4 to 1?
When did Kentucky last miss this many free throws (10), make this few 3-pointers (1) and see Bogans, the SEC Player of the Year, spend so many minutes of the second half (all 20) as a spectator -- thanks to a high ankle sprain suffered in the first half?
"Today we showed we don't have to rely on one player," UK forward Erik Daniels said.
That's not entirely true. After Wisconsin senior star Kirk Penney scored 17 first-half points, Smith read his team the condensed version of the riot act during halftime. Then he asked a simple question.
"Who wants to guard him?" Smith said.
"I do," said sophomore forward Chuck Hayes.
Penney scored once during the second half -- his fifth 3-pointer -- and it didn't come on Hayes' watch.
"He couldn't get no touches," said Hayes.
"They just hunted him down," said Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan.
There was another Tubby edict: When in doubt, get the ball to 6-foot-9 senior Marquis Estill who, said teammate Jules Camara, "plays like he's 7-1."
Wisconsin's Mike Wilkinson can vouch for that.
For reasons not entirely clear -- even after Bogans, one of UK's prime perimeter threats, hobbled from the locker room to the Kentucky bench a few minutes into the second half -- Wilkinson basically checked Estill by himself. Estill responded with a career-high 28 points, as well as six rebounds and a block. His lone glaring error: missing a gimme two-handed dunk.
And Wilkinson? He fouled out.
"It's impossible to guard him one-on-one," said Camara. "I'm surprised they didn't double him."
Stand in line.
Estill didn't exactly plan on whooping it up after the win. Not his style.
"I'll go and relax a little bit and get ready for the next one," he said.
The next one. Go figure.
There's a chance Kentucky could be without Bogans for Saturday's regional final against No. 3 seed Marquette, which beat Pittsburgh, 77-74. And if he does play, who knows how mobile he'll be.
"He's the heart and soul of our team," said trainer David Kindy. "If there was any possible way he could have gone (Thursday night) he would have gone."
Instead, he became the most-watched 6-5 cheerleader in recent Kentucky hoops history. Between now and Saturday afternoon's tip-off he'll see more ice than a bartender. He'll also get ultra-sound treatment and get fitted for a walking boot.
"I think Keith will be all right," said Estill. "He's a senior."
He's also here, one way or another, for a chance at his first Final Four appearance. And, considering how close he and the Wildcats came to the alternative, that's not a bad tomorrow.
Gene Wojciechowski is a staff writer at ESPN Magazine..
Keith Bogans may or may not play Saturday, but Kentucky survived to play another day.