Bo Ryan has been coaching basketball games for 30 years and thought he had seen it all until Wednesday night in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Sometime back in the late ‘90s, before he took over at Wisconsin, Ryan’s Plattville team defeated conference rival Stevens Point in spite of shooting 29 percent.
“I said, ‘we’ll never be involved in another game like that again,’” Ryan remembered saying about that win. “Boy, was I wrong.”
Ryan’s 8th-ranked Badgers survived a 28.8 percent shooting night to remain undefeated with a 48-38 victory over host Virginia in a game that may have set offensive basketball back to before the shot clock days.
“How many games in the last 30 years has there only been one player in the game score in double figures?” said Ryan, who collected his 300th win as Badgers’ coach. “I don’t think it has happened.”
Wisconsin’s Josh Gasser was that guy with 11 points, albeit five of those came from the free throw line on a night where field goals were hard to come by. Gasser’s value was more visible on defense, where he chased Virginia’s best scorer, Joe Harris, most of the night and held the All-ACC star to a mere two points and a 1-for-10 shooting performance. Harris was averaging 12.4 ppg.
The closest any Cavalier came to double digits was freshman point guard London Perrantes with eight.
Everyone in John Paul Jones Arena knew it was going to be a defensive battle. The trademark for both programs, built to last, has been defense. Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers are influenced by Bennett’s dad’s (former Wisconsin head coach Dick Bennett) Pack-Line defense. Ryan, who succeeded Dick Bennett, but had Tony as an assistant, is a disciple of Bobby Knight’s defensive systems.
So, first one to 50 wins, right?
Pretty close. This one was even more physical than last year’s game at Wisconsin when the Cavaliers pulled off the upset. In that one, Ryan said that certain Cavaliers (Harris, Akil Mitchell, and Darion Atkins) almost willed their team to a win.
That upset left a sour taste in the Badgers’ collective mouths, and they had gotten plenty of reminders about that performance for days at Ryan’s practices. If there was one thing Wisconsin was packing for Virginia, it was toughness, defense, heart.
The Cavaliers, now 7-2, got some decent looks but shot even worse than Wisconsin, a putrid 23.4 percent (11-for-47, the fourth-worst in Wahoo history). In the second half, when most Wahoo fans expected their heroes to make a run, Virginia was even worse offensively, only 3-for-20, with its last field goal coming with 10 minutes and 1 second showing in the game.
UVa’s 38 points were the second-fewest in the shot clock era (1986) and the lowest during the Bennett era.
Nobody’s going to win like that, especially against a Top 10 team seeking to avenge a loss.
“We’re on the left-hand side,” Ryan said, meaning the Won-Lost ledger. “Even when we got good looks, they were hurried.”
Bennett thought his team lost its composure. He was right. For the second time against a Top 15 team this season, Virginia has suffered some offensive meltdowns and paid dearly, leaving Wahoo fans wondering, is that all there is?
“When it mattered, [Wisconsin] was sounder, more poised, and made plays,” Bennett said. “I think Wisconsin did to us, in a way, what we did to them last year. Last year we outlasted them a little bit.”
Virginia was simply awful at finishing around the basket against the Badgers, who had been a questionable defensive and rebounding team coming in. However, Wisconsin took it to the Cavaliers on the glass, 40-34, practically matched the deeper Wahoos in the paint (18-20), and scored 13 points on 12 offensive rebounds.
Wisconsin’s defense of Harris was superb. When the UVa shooting star realized his shot wasn’t falling, he was determined to put his head down and drive for show, but the Badgers were ready for him, cutting off driving lanes to the hoop.
While the Big 10ers played solid defense, it wasn’t like Virginia didn’t have chances. Rather, it was almost like the Cavaliers couldn’t hit water if they fell out of the boat.
Yet, as poorly as Virginia shot the ball, the Cavaliers found themselves still in it with 3:17 left to play, down 43-36 after four free throws by Anthony Gill and Perrantes. Neither team scored another field goal from that point onward.
Credit Wisconsin for refusing a repeat of last year when Virginia came into the Kohl Center and stole the game, out-toughing a team that takes pride in that phase of basketball, lives it, breathes it.
Last year, Harris had 22. Last year, Akil Mitchell had 11 points and 10 rebounds. Last year, Darion Atkins had 14 points and 7 rebounds.
That’s a collective 47 points and at least 17 rebounds.
Wednesday night, collectively, that same UVa trio combined for 10 points and 7 rebounds.
You think Ryan reminded his team about that the past few days?
“I think that we got out-toughed and out-worked,” UVa’s Harris said after the game. “They came in and did the exact same thing to us.”
Presented a great opportunity to establish itself as a Top 25 team for the second time this season, Virginia fell short again, showing a lack of poise at the most critical times. The Cavaliers have now lost to a pair of Top 15 teams by a total of 13 points.
Bennett said he remained impressed with a Wisconsin team that doesn’t beat itself, a lesson the Cavaliers need to master.