MADISON, Wis. - When the Wisconsin Badgers drew Virginia in this year's ACC/Big Ten Challenge, it was clear early on that points would be hard to come by. Both teams are known for forcing low-scoring games behind tough defensive efforts, and the Badgers and the Cavaliers finished last season as the two best defenses in points allowed per game.
That turned out to be the case as Virginia's pack-line defense held the Badgers (4-3, 0-0 Big Ten) to just 38.2 percent shooting in a 60-54 win for Tony Bennett's Cavaliers (5-2, 0-0 ACC) Wednesday night in the Kohl Center. Junior guard Ben Brust led the Badgers in scoring with 15 points, but it wasn't enough to help overcome a slow start on offense, which left the Badgers trailing the Cavaliers 24-23 at halftime.
It was a back-forth-game, with six lead changes and no lead larger than eight points for either team. But the Cavaliers opened the game on a 6-2 run and made the Badgers try and play catch up for the rest of the night. That's a tall task for any team, but the Badgers thought they found a few good looks against Virginia's pack-line defense- they just weren't able to knock the shots down.
"We took a lot of shots, but we missed a lot of shots," Brust said after the game. "The opportunities were there it's a matter of knocking them down or not."
The Badgers shot 36.4 percent from behind the arc in the game, and made 5-of-13 three-point attempts after halftime, but their shooting from distance wasn't enough to make up for a lack of physicality in the paint either. The Cavaliers outscored the Badgers 22-20 in the paint overall, and Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan said his team needed to play better around the basket against such a physical defense.
In addition, the Cavaliers outrebounded the Badgers 36-25 in the game, and edged the Badgers in both offensive and defensive rebounds. The Badgers outscored the Cavaliers 12-10 on second chance points, but they said they let Virginia out-physical them as a whole.
"There was so many opportunities for loose balls and it seemed like every time we were close to getting a big stop, the ball would bounce off the rim or get tipped around and end up in their hand," forward Jared Berggren said. "Those were just toughness plays that we didn't make tonight."
But even though the Badgers didn't have much momentum in the first half, they showed signs of life after halftime. The Badgers rallied and took a 36-31 lead with 12:26 left in the game behind back-to-back three pointers from Sam Dekker and Brust, but the Cavaliers battled back after a timeout and cut Wisconsin's momentum short.
Brust said the Badgers had an opportunity to wrest the momentum back into their favor after Traevon Jackson missed a layup with the score tied at 38, but the Cavaliers recovered the ball and Joe Harris sank a three pointer to give Virginia a lead they wouldn't lose for the rest of the game. The Badgers would come close, but it wasn't enough to prevent the Cavaliers from closing out the win.
"Next thing you knew, in the snap of a finger it was 36-36," Brust said. "Everything we built for kind of went away. There was opportunity. We've just got to finish the possession or get a rebound and maybe it's a different story."
The Badgers host California Sunday in the Kohl Center, and it's clear they still have a lot of work to do if they want to compete for a Big Ten title this year. Jackson started the game at point guard instead of George Marshall, and the team is still looking to establish an offensive identity behind their senior-laden frontcourt and with guard Josh Gasser out for the season.
The Badgers have had a few bumps in the road already when they lost earlier games to Florida and Creighton, but it's clear they still have a lot of growing to do before the start of Big Ten play later this year.
"It's got to help us grow," Berggren said. "If we don't grow from this it's going to be a long season."