In a game featuring two squads with similar influences and grind-it-out styles, the Virginia Cavaliers grabbed a 60-54 upset win over Wisconsin in a hostile environment. In a matchup between two low-tempo teams, Tony Bennett out-Bennetted the Dick Bennett-influenced Badgers, as an efficient offensive attack and improved tenacious defense were enough to hold a late lead. The Hoos improved to 5-2, and have won four straight, while the Badgers dropped to 5-3, their other losses to Florida and Creighton.
Joe Harris had his 2012 coming out party on national TV, scoring at will in the first half and finishing with a game-high 22 points and 5 assists. He helped Virginia build and maintain a slim first half lead, as the Hoos went into halftime up 24-23; in the second half, the Badgers threatened to go on runs behind a barrage of three-point attempts, but UVA answered each time with a big shot or defensive play of its own.
Wahoo fans had a "not again" moment trying to protect a 5 point lead with 45 seconds to play, when an Akil Mitchell pass sailed out of bounds, giving Wisconsin possession and allowing them to cut the lead to 3. However, once again, the team made the plays to steady the ship; Mitchell was fouled, sinking one of two free throws, leading to the defensive possession of the game. The Hoos pressured Wisconsin beyond the three point line, hedging hard on numerous screens, while 23 seconds ticked off the clock. The Badgers eventually forced up a wild three pointer, sealing the game for the Hoos.
The day was an emotional homecoming for Tony Bennett, who has extensive Wisconsin routes through his father, and second-year Paul Jesperson as well, who played in front of dozens of family and friends in his home state.
The win was the product of a team effort on both sides of the ball. While Joe Harris's effort led the way, the Hoos played a complete and team-oriented game to steal the upset. The two-headed monster of Akil Mitchell and Darion Atkins made especially important contributions, combining for 25 points (Akins's 14 was a career high), dominating the boards, and sealing the interior defensively. Virginia rebounded 80% of Wisconsin's misses to UW's 69% and won the offensive boards 30% to 20%. Mitchell and Atkins finished with 11 and 7 rebounds, respectively, while no Badger had more than 6.
The two were also anchors of a much-improved pack line defense, which has shown improvement by leaps and bounds since the opener against George Mason. The addition of Teven Jones as a true point guard and a few games of experience for the first years have turned the pack line into the game-changer that fans have come to expect. Virginia was able to set their defense all game, giving up no fast break points, and played the system to near-perfection, double-teaming, rotating, and helping as it is designed. The Badgers made a few deep uncontested three-pointers, a team weakness, but "made them earn" (a Coach Bennett favorite line) otherwise.
Evan Nolte played important time after the bench, scoring 8, and Justin Anderson hit a three-pointer. In his first game back, Jontel Evans showed rust, playing just 16 minutes and scoring no points. Tellingly, it was Tevin Jones who was on the court at point guard in the final minutes. This is a trend that should end soon, as Jontel has more time to adjust to game action. Regardless, its tough to understate the importance of the steady, calming hand that Jones has brought to the team.
Getting to the free-throw line was a major weakness in last year's team, which finished 193rd nationally in FT Rate, but the Hoos dominated in that category tonight, shooting 17 free throws to Wisconsin's 5. Akil Mitchell has shown a great deal of improvement in his efficiency at the line, sinking 5 of his 6 tonight.
The pacists of the world were, as we could have predicted, unenthused - Virginia won the game in 55 possessions (25% slower than UNC's average of 74 possessions per game, for reference).
Going into the Kohl Center and beating Wisconsin is no small feat. The Badgers haven't lost a November non-conference game at home since 1997 and are now 115-13 at home under Bo Ryan. UVA has already shown drastic improvement in this young season, and the first-years will only continue to get more comfortable. In March, if the Hoos are able to scratch their way into tournament contention, this road win will be a big reason why.