Badgers hang with Tar Heels all night despite poor shooting
When a team's best player shoots 23.5% through the first 39 minutes against the preseason No. 1 team and two additional starters are held scoreless, well, you'd expect a blowout. And in that sense, Wisconsin did on Wednesday night what it always does: defy expectations.
In the end, a good road showing was not enough for a win, however, as the No. 9 Badgers (6-1) fell 60-57 to No. 5 North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The final score was a season-high for points surrendered by Wisconsin and simultaneously marked the lowest offensive output of 2011 for the Tar Heels as well.
One thing is certain: Wisconsin proved that it belonged among the nation's elite. The team proved it can enforce its tempo on even the fastest-paced hombres. Furthermore, junior Jared Berggren was the best big man weapon on the court.
The Badgers led UNC for an impressive six-minute stretch in the second half but could not hold off Harrison Barnes forever. As North Carolina's defense tightened, UW's hesitance to attack John Henson in the interior led to suspect shot selection and another deadly scoring drought that finally caught up to the Badgers.
Henson finished with a remarkable 17 rebounds and 5 blocked shots in a game-saving effort. It was clear that North Carolina's length inside contributed to Wisconsin's passive offensive attack.
A major storyline -- if not the storyline -- following the game was Jordan Taylor's performance. Even an average shooting performance from Taylor would have put UW in the driver's seat throughout the game. He finished just 6-of-20 from the field and 3-of-11 behind the arc. Taylor attempted all six of Wisconsin's free throws, but hit only three -- equal to the final margin of defeat. He was unable to finish any plays near the rim due to Henson, Tyler Zeller and company.
Taylor and Kendall Marshall looked like two guys who knew each other's games pretty well already, which is true having both camped at the Chris Paul even this summer. But Taylor had the upper hand and was able to move where he wanted with Marshall checking him. When Dexter Strickland finally switched over to defend Taylor in the second half, the offense ground to a halt. In the crucial parts of UNC's surge, Taylor was just as guilty of taking bad shots as any of his less experienced teammates. The senior All-American hardly looked the part, other than his reliable 4-to-0 assist to turnover ratio.
Often you've got too take the good and the bad together, in stride. Such was the first half predicament for the Badgers when their outside shots (3-for-15 on 3-pointers) were not falling at all, but bounces seemed to be going their way otherwise. Berggren was playing outstanding defense, stripping and stealing balls from the Tar Heel big men. In fairness, North Carolina's bigs weren't taking very good care of the ball either.
The Badgers were getting good defensive play from Josh Gasser and Ryan Evans as well. Gasser, along with Mike Bruesewitz, was a non-factor offensively however. His counterpart, Strickland, carried the Heels through a rough first half with seven points as the Badgers forced eight early turnovers.
Despite the cold shooting, UW trailed by just one, 25-24, at halftime as a result of the low scoring and deliberate pace.
North Carolina scored only one fastbreak basket in the entire game and got many of its points in the first 20 minutes off defensive breakdowns inside when the Badgers tried to front the post.
The second half produced higher highs and lower lows. Berggren hit the ground running in the second half, using unexpected bursts of speed to maneuver past Heel defenders. Meanwhile the Badger defense was holding UNC scoreless for a five-minute stretch of its own. Berggren hit two late treys to finish with 14 points. Evans added 10 points and 7 rebounds.
What saved the Tar Heels was domination on the glass. North Carolina registered a 42-29 edge in rebounding.
A couple bad decisions in a row by the Badgers to take quick shots allowed UNC to take back the lead for good with just under 10 minutes remaining. The turning point appeared to come shortly after Wisconsin took its largest lead of the game, 36-31, on an Evans jumper. Brust got a little too anxious and launched an airball 3-pointer from about 28 feet out and the game was never the same.
Barnes then began to heat up, scoring 14 of his game-high 20 points after the break. He also cranked up his own defense and poked the ball expertly away from Evans on one occasion. The lead ballooned to 10 points before Taylor found his touch a bit to trim the final deficit.
Amazingly, UW had more points in the paint (28-18), points off turnovers (18-4), and bench points (15-7) than UNC but still lost. That is what making less 30% of 28 3-point attempts will get you. Based on the outside shooting alone, one could make an argument that Wisconsin would actually be the better team on a neutral court.
Though he would never admit it, Roy Williams might have realized this too. During the post-game handshake, Williams could be seen saying to Bo Ryan, "I'm glad I don't have to play you guys anymore."
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