In a game that lived up to its billing as a gritty defensive battle, it was precisely Virginia’s defense that carried them to a 60-54 victory over Wisconsin at the Kohl Center Wednesday night.
And never was the Cavaliers’ defensive strength more critical than in the final minute of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge matchup.
With 48 seconds left, a thunderous put-back dunk on a missed Ryan Evans three-pointer by Jared Berggren and a pair of free throws from the fifth-year senior forward on the next possession pulled the Badgers within three with 33 seconds on the clock. But on the next possession, UW held onto the ball for 27 seconds, unable to find a decent look against lockdown defensive series from UVA. The play ended with a hopeless three-point heave from Brust, dashing any hopes of a last-second comeback.
“That was probably the sweetest thing for me, to in a sense win it on a good defensive stand at the end,” said Virginia head coach Tony Bennett, who served as an assistant coach at Wisconsin from 1999-2003.
UW head coach Bo Ryan said he was looking for a drive into the paint on the deciding possession and suggested that Brust’s lack of experience in late-game situations may have made him more tentative with the ball in his hands. The junior guard, who finished with a team-high 15 points and collected four rebounds, assumed responsibility for the broken play.
“Made the wrong play,” Brust said. “It was open right away, then just got caught in no man’s land a couple times, I should have attacked, get fouled or scored, [whatever] stops the clock.”
Before that deciding possession, Wisconsin looked to be blazing a path for the comeback and pulled within three with less than five minutes remaining. But Virginia’s star junior guard Joe Harris refused to make it that easy, collecting his own miss and converting a three-point play on the put back.
That play handed the Cavaliers an eight-point lead, enough for them to hold on despite the Badgers’ attempt at a late comeback.
After spending the first half chasing the Cavaliers, back-to-back three-pointers from Sam Dekker and Ben Brust – his bomb coming from several feet beyond the arc – gave the announced crowd of 16,690 a false sense that Wisconsin was preparing to pull away as it built a five-point advantage.
But after recollecting themselves during the break, Bennett’s team answered with a 15-4 run of its own and never surrendered the lead in the game’s final 10 minutes.
“There was so many opportunities where there was loose balls, and it seemed like every time that we were close to getting a big stop, the ball would bounce off the rim, get tipped around and end up in their hands,” Berggren, who finished with 12 points, said. “Those are just toughness plays that we didn’t make tonight.”
In the first half, the two teams – both known for their slow-paced offenses – combined for only 47 points, Harris the only man in double figures on either side with 13 points. Wisconsin struggled to build an offensive rhythm through much of that period as Virginia’s defense forced uncomfortable, low-percentage looks for the Badgers.
Wisconsin finished the half shooting 37 percent from the field to Virginia’s 45 percent conversion rate, and no player had more than 6 points in the opening 20 minutes. Thanks to a late three-pointer from Jackson, UW entered the locker room down by only a single point.
“I thought we got some good looks, if we just could have controlled the ball a bit better,” Ryan said. “When we were making our drives I think we didn’t fight through contact the way you need to when you’re playing in a grind game like that.”
On the opposite end of the floor, the versatile Harris had no trouble hitting contested jumpers from all over the hardwood, closing out the night on 8-of-16 shooting for a game-high 22 points.
UW’s own established early season offensive leader in Berggren limped through the first half as his shots slid off every edge of the basket, his lone score of the half coming on a three-pointer. Helping to make up for the fifth-year senior’s inconsistency in the paint was forward Ryan Evans, whose six first half points were the most of any Badger. But Evans missed all six of his shot attempts in the second half.
It proved the picturesque homecoming for Bennett, who acknowledged that added emotion came with a victory as he looked up at the 2000 Final Four banner hanging from the rafters that UW earned with his father Dick Bennett at the helm and he as a young assistant.
With two losses in its last three games, Bennett’s old team was left still searching for its identity.
“If we don’t grow from this it’s going to be a long season,” Berggren said. “We’ve taken a couple bumps here that we got to learn from, we got to turn the page and really improve going forward.”
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