It was a game few people expected Wisconsin to win.
Instead of losing, the Badgers never trailed Wednesday night at the Kohl Center en route to a 73-69 upset, handing the No. 6 Duke Blue Devils their first loss of the season and first ever in the 11-year history of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
It was the most anticipated game of the year, with some students waiting in line more than three hours before the tip, and the Badgers made sure to send them home happy.
“I’m so happy for our players and our fans to get a game here like this,” UW head coach Bo Ryan said. “But we had to deliver on the court, (and) our players delivered on the court.”
Thanks to an impressive team effort, Wisconsin (5-1) earned its fourth straight win over an ACC opponent for the first time in school history, dating back to last year’s thrilling 74-72 road victory over Virginia Tech in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Duke (6-1) made it interesting in the end, but could never take the lead away from the Badgers, who fed off the energy of the raucous sold-out crowd of 17,230.
“I thought they played a magnificent game,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said of the Badgers. “I thought they were the team deserving of winning. … For 40 minutes, I thought they were really good.”
Leading the way offensively for Wisconsin were senior guard Trevon Hughes and junior forward Jon Leuer, a pair of Badgers who tied for the team lead with 12 points the last time the two teams met on Nov. 27, 2007 in Durham, N.C.
Hughes finished with a team and career-high 26 points on 9-of-16 shooting from the field, including 4-for-7 from beyond the arc. Statistically, it was a significant improvement from the last time the two teams met — a game in which Hughes struggled, shooting just 4-for-13 to score his 12 points,
Neither Hughes nor the Blue Devils’ head coach was surprised by his improvement, though.
“I thought he was pretty good the last time we played,” Krzyzewski said. “I think he was good then, and I think he’s good now. … He’s a damn good player.”
Leuer added 17 points, all but five coming in the first half. The 6-foot-10 forward shot 6-of-14 from the field, while grabbing seven rebounds, one shy of the game high.
Up and down the stat sheet it looked to be an evenly played game between the Badgers and the Blue Devils, but the more balanced approach by Wisconsin with eight players scoring to just five for Duke made the difference.
The Badgers jumped out to an early 10-point lead just 5 1/2 minutes into the game when Leuer hit a jumper to put UW up 17-7 with 15:15 remaining in the half.
It was a smart play and a shot that developed in the flow of the Badgers’ offense, something Wisconsin did particularly well against a tough opponent such as Duke which boasts one of the best defenses in the nation.
Along with Leuer, Hughes in particular remained calm throughout the game, dishing out a pair of assists to zero turnovers.
“I just felt like I can’t get rattled,” Hughes said. “If I look like I’m rattled, maybe my teammates won’t believe in me or have trust in me. I had to stay calm, especially playing against Duke. They probably feed off fear; they can sense it I think.”
After UW went up 10, it was a back-and-forth game, as somehow every time Duke connected on a big shot, the Badgers seemed to be right there to answer it.
Junior forward Keaton Nankivil attributed it to the Wisconsin guards, especially Hughes, senior Jason Bohannon and sophomore Jordan Taylor.
“It’s real important for confidence I think,” Nankivil said. “It shows a lot about what J-Bo, Pop (Hughes) and Jordan can do as far as controlling the game in those situations.
“I felt like we always had control just of the pace and what we wanted to do because those guys had the ball in their hands.”
Guard Kyle Singler did his best to keep Duke in the game with a career-high 28 points on 10-of-17 shooting, including a perfect 7-for-7 from the free throw line, but the Blue Devils were behind early and couldn’t climb back from trailing by as many as 11 points.
Singler’s 17 first-half points kept the Blue Devils within six heading into the break and his jumper to open the second half cut the UW lead to just four.
Fortunately for the Badgers, they were able to hold the 6-foot-8 forward to just 11 points in the second half as Taylor and redshirt freshman Ryan Evans made him work for every shot.
“He’s a great player, you know, he’s an All-American,” Taylor said. “He was making a lot of his drives in the first half to his right hand … after that I just tried to make him go left.
“Coach put a lot of emphasis on making him shoot tough two-point jump shots, and that’s what I tried to do,” he continued. “We got him to air ball a few and miss a few. … I think slowing him down in the second half was really key in winning the game.”
Wisconsin remained calm under pressure throughout the second half, even when Duke cut it to just a two-point game at 40-38 with 17:21 remaining. A layup by Evans gave UW some breathing room and seven straight points from Hughes (with a Duke layup in between) made it 49-40 in favor of the Badgers with just under 14 minutes to play.
True to form, however, Singler and the Blue Devils cut the lead from nine points to just one in three minutes, making it 53-52 at the 10:47 mark following a pair of Singler free throws.
The Hughes-led Badgers controlled the final 10 minutes of the game, pushing the lead to a game-high 11 points at the 5:08 mark and utilizing as much of the shot clock on each possession as possible to limit Duke’s opportunities to score.
“We had to shorten the game,” Ryan said. “We had to just make that clock just tick away. They’re just too good offensively.”