Joe Harris poured in 22 points in the Hoos’ win at Wisconsin.
In coach Bo Ryan’s tenure, the Wisconsin men’s basketball program had posted an 85-6 record in home games against non-conference teams entering this season’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Make that 85-7. On Wednesday night, Virginia waltzed into the Kohl Center and picked up a 60-54 win. UVa now owns an 8-5 all-time record in the challenge.
The Cavaliers have won four straight games this season and four straight times in this event.
“I have so much respect for this program and what Coach Ryan has done. I tried to prepare the guys, that if they wanted any chance at this game, they would have to be so tough-minded and sustain their defensive possessions, and be sound with the ball,” UVa coach Tony Bennett said. “I think they [Wisconsin] went up five or six, and I’ve seen a lot of teams just fold at that point in this environment, and I was just so pleased to see our guys answer quickly and then remain tough-minded. I know Wisconsin probably didn’t play its best game, but I thought we had something to do with that.”
Indeed, the Hoos (5-2) fell into a hole midway through the second half when the Badgers (4-3) canned back-to-back 3-pointers; Sam Dekker, who had 5 points and 4 rebounds, hit the first and Ben Brust, who had a team-high 15 points, nailed the second for the 36-31 lead at the 12:26 mark. Bennett called for a quick timeout to try to calm the Kohl crowd and to refocus his team, which had led for the majority of the first half.
The Cavaliers responded in a big way as they rattled off a 15-4 run. As has been the season-long theme, this scoring burst relied on a balanced attack as Akil Mitchell , Evan Nolte , Joe Harris , and Teven Jones all made baskets during the stretch. Nolte had the biggest impact during the run as he recorded all 8 of his points, including a pair of triples.
Of course, Harris played a big role during that key run too. In addition to hitting a 3-pointer, he also assisted on one of Nolte’s treys too. That proved to be part of a theme for the game as Harris cranked out 22 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists with 0 turnovers. He carried the Hoos to a 24-23 halftime lead with 13 points on the strength of 6-for-9 shooting and then helped propel the visitors to victory with 8 points in the final 10 minutes. Harris gave the Cavaliers the lead for good with a ‘size you up’ 3-pointer over Wisconsin’s Jared Berggren that made it 41-38 with 9:32 to go. Down the stretch, he dropped off an assist to Darion Atkins , completed a traditional 3-point play, and made a pair of free throws in the final minute.
Long story short, it was a big-time performance for the junior.
“Joe had a terrific game,” Bennett said. “Joe took a step of faith to come to Virginia. I was recruiting him at Washington State, and I said ‘We’re trying to start something at Virginia,’ and it’s so rewarding to see him with that kind of game. He played with a great purpose.”
That could describe the whole Virginia team, who played a purposeful and efficient game from start to finish. The Cavaliers never looked out of sorts or intimidated by the venue and executed well to shoot 45.7% for the night. They also hit the glass with a steady resolve, taking the board battle for the sixth time this season by out-rebounding Wisconsin 36-25. This marked the first game of the season that the Badgers were held to single-digit offensive rebounds (7).
Mitchell and Atkins led that effort with 17 of the team’s boards. Mitchell posted another double-double, his third of the season, with 11 points, 10 rebounds, and 2 assists. Atkins added a career-high 14 points to go with 7 rebounds, 2 blocks, 1 steal, and 1 assist. That duo helped effectively slow down Berggren, who entered the game averaging 15.2 points and 7.2 rebounds on 55.3% shooting. UVa held him to 12 points, thanks to some timely double teams and good close-outs, and just 2 rebounds.
“We worked hard on block-outs preparing for this. When they run their offense, their spacing is one of the best that I’ve seen. They space the floor so well because their ‘fours’ and ‘fives’ can shoot it. They get spaced high and wide, so maybe they’re not quite on the glass as much,” Bennett said. “So they were a little bit further away to get to the boards. I’ll look at the tape, maybe it was just good fortune, but that was an emphasis of ours – to check and hold them if they were coming, or otherwise gang-rebound with all five guys.”
Akil Mitchell posted his third double-double of the season.
“There were so many opportunities where there were loose balls and it seemed like every time we were close to getting a big stop, the ball would bounce around and end up in their hands,” Berggren said. “Those were just toughness plays that we didn’t make tonight and we’ve got to get back and get better at moving forward.”
“Mitchell and Atkins on the glass and how tenacious they were defensively – those guys played extremely well. Because, you know [Paul] Jesperson, Harris and Nolte can shoot it, so sometimes you concentrate on certain things,” Ryan said. “I thought those two guys just willed their team to winning.”
That final phrase must be music to Bennett’s ears. He frequently talks about toughness, being sound with the ball, wearing teams down, and showing the willingness to outlast opponents possession after possession. To hear that type of compliment from Ryan, who Bennett once worked for as an assistant coach with the Badgers, is a nod to what Bennett continues to try to build at UVa.
After the game during his television interview, it was obvious that getting a win against Ryan and the Wisconsin program that his father Dick Bennett helped build meant a lot to the younger Bennett. It could mean a lot to this year’s team too if it can build on a solid road victory.
“My dad has shaped my career, there’s no question about it,” Bennett said. “I’ve watched him and been so proud of his accomplishments, and to be able to come in and to be able to at least put some quality basketball on the floor, here, I know that would have meant a lot to him. … There are some great memories here with the players that I got to know, and the times with my dad. It’s amazing what Bo has done. The years of Sweet 16s and conference championships, this program is built to last. For us to come in and do this was good.”