Early on, some joked the first team to 50 would win the Wisconsin-Virginia game Wednesday night. Turns out those folks didn't shoot low enough.
The Badgers (9-0) survived their own 28.8 percent shooting by holding the Cavaliers (7-2) to the fourth-lowest shooting percentage -- 22.4 percent (11-of-49) -- in their program's history. Wisconsin slowly extended a halftime lead and in the end, corralled enough rebounds to emerge with a gritty 48-38 victory.
Wisconsin's first road win in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge since 2008 doubled as a milestone win for future Hall of Fame coach Bo Ryan, who improved to 300-113 (.726) at Wisconsin, and 683-216 overall.
Underestimating the defense played in a game between a Ryan-coached team and a Tony Bennett-coached team proved to be unwise. Virginia's star forward Joe Harris knows that all too well now after Wisconsin held him to two points on 1-for-10 shooting. The Badgers effectively erased him.
Strengthened by a rabid home crowd, Virginia's strong "pack line" defense set the standard right away, forcing the Badgers into a rushed turnover up against the shot clock on the very first possession. The length of the Cavalier defenders clearly bothered the Badger guards early, forcing guys like Ben Brust and Traevon Jackson into some wild shots and shaky passes on pick-and-pop situations.
As the two teams settled down from the frantic, yet low-scoring start, UW's defense answered the bell also. Despite experiencing their own five-minute scoring drought in the middle of the first half, the Badgers forced Virginia into a game-changing field goal drought to take control of the game. After freshman London Perrantes converted a three-point play at the 13:08 mark to give the Cavs a 13-11 lead, they only managed two free throws over the next 10 minutes.
Mike Tobey's baby hook with 3:18 left to go in the half finally broke the streak, but by then Wisconsin held a 19-17 lead. From there, a Frank Kaminsky layup followed by four UW free throws put the Badgers up 25-20 at the break. They would not look back.
Still, Wisconsin would not have held off the Cavaliers' late-game push without Josh Gasser making big play after big play at crunch time.
For example, out of nowhere, Gasser calmly pulled up for a 26-footer in rhythm from the top of the key to push UW's cushion back to 12 points with about six minutes left. He led all scorers with 11 points.
Additionally, Gasser continued to lead the group effort defending Harris. He avoided over-recovering after being screened so as to always keep Harris in front of him. In the defensive play of the game, the redshirt junior drew a beautiful charge on a fast-breaking Harris with 2:50 to go in the game, completely reversing momentum and stifling Virginia's last, best chance for a comeback.
Kaminsky looked like the best player on the court for much of the game, too, pulling down nine rebounds and scoring seven of his nine points in the opening half. Though he looked hesitant to pull the trigger from behind the arc, Kaminsky's footwork presented him with much-needed easy looks on the block. He also deftly dribbled out of trouble when Virginia sent extra defenders his way.
The junior finished with 12 rebounds, as UW won the overall battle 40-34. Kaminsky's six offensive rebounds might have been the most pleasant surprise of the night for a team that was grabbing only 27.5 percent of its offensive rebounding opportunities coming into the game.
And with Virginia struggling to finish near the rim, shutting down second chances was key for Wisconsin. Even though Sam Dekker had a rough shooting night, his continual hustle and athletic rebounding typified the maximum effort given by the entire team on Wednesday.
With each Badger bucket in the second half, the Cavalier defense began to stretch a bit. Wisconsin jumped out to a double-digit lead in the first few minutes after the break, courtesy of a rare transition lay in by Dekker and subsequent 3-pointer by Brust. For the most part, however, Virginia continued to make the Badgers work hard for every basket. It is hard to remember a time when Wisconsin had more air balls and backboard-only misses in a victory.
Impressive Cavalier defense was the only thing keeping the game close at times, as their offense was miserable.
With Harris pressing too much and Anthony Gill bottled up all night, the home team cut the Badger lead to single digits on several occasions in the last 10 minutes but couldn't sustain any runs. Virginia finally managed to manufacture points late by crashing the boards and getting to the charity stripe even though its shots would not fall. The Cavs pulled within 44-38 on two free throws by Gill with 1:40 remaining, but did not hit a field goal over the final nine minutes.
In addition to the stellar performances by Gasser and Kaminsky, Nigel Hayes also gave UW nine decent minutes. In one sequence, Hayes scored off a nice dump-down from Jackson, then tipped loose a steal on defense before grabbing an offensive board on the other end.
Wisconsin now has two days to recover before welcoming rival Marquette (5-3) to the Kohl Center on Saturday afternoon.
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