By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
MADISON, Wis. — On the basketball court where, 24 hours earlier, they’d received words of encouragement from a former University of Wisconsin head coach, the Virginia Cavaliers knocked off the Badgers 60-54 before a near-capacity crowd of 16,690 at the Kohl Center.
Whether Dick Bennett, back at his home in rural Wisconsin, watched the ACC/Big Ten Challenge game on ESPN2, his son couldn’t say for sure Wednesday night.
“But I know he’s proud of the guys,” UVa coach Tony Bennett said. “We just wanted to try to define Virginia Basketball a little more at a place where good basketball is known. I just have so much respect for this program, and to be able to come in here was important for us. But it’s just one game.”
The younger Bennett was a volunteer assistant on the Wisconsin team, coached by his father, that advanced to the Final Four in March 2000. After Dick Bennett abruptly retired on Nov. 30, 2000, his son remained at Wisconsin as an assistant, finishing out 2000-01 under interim coach Brad Soderberg and then working for Bo Ryan for two seasons.
Ryan is still the Badgers’ coach, and he has guided them to 14 consecutive NCAA tournaments. Before Wednesday, Wisconsin’s record under Ryan in non-conference games at the Kohl Center was 85-6. The Badgers had not lost a non-conference home game in November since 1997.
Wisconsin “is a program that is built to last,” Bennett said, “and for us to come in here and do this was good.”
The Wahoos (5-2) were especially motivated Wednesday, and not only because the ACC came into the night trailing 4-2 in its annual series with the Big Ten. (The Challenge ended in a 6-6 tie.) Bennett’s players knew what the game meant to their coach and to his father, who spoke to the team Tuesday night after its short shootaround at the Kohl Center.
“I think emotionally this game was a little different than, say, our Big Ten/ACC Challenges in the past,” junior swingman Joe Harris said.
Bennett has only one senior among his scholarship players — point guard Jontel Evans — and the `Hoos could have folded after Wisconsin (4-3) hit back-to-back 3-pointers to go up 36-31 with 12:26 left. But this bears little resemblance to the group that got rattled late in losses to George Mason and Delaware.
“I’ve seen a lot of teams just fold at that point in this environment,” Bennett said, “and I was so pleased to see our guys answer quick and then remain tough-minded.”
Freshman forward Evan Nolte, a Milwaukee native whose large cheering section at the Kohl Center included his parents, his siblings and his grandmother, led the Cavaliers’ comeback.
First, the 6-8 Nolte fed junior forward Akil Mitchell for a layup. That made it 36-33 and started a stretch of eight straight possessions on which Virginia scored. Then Nolte drilled a 3-pointer to pull the `Hoos even. After Wisconsin went up 38-36, Nolte made two free throws to tie the game again. His second trey, with 7:46 left, made it 46-40, and the Badgers never got closer than three the rest of the way.
Nolte, who now lives in the Atlanta area, finished with eight points and three rebounds in 19 minutes off the bench.
“He’s very smart,” Bennett said. “He reminds me of a lot of the good players that have played at Wisconsin, and guys we’ve had. He’s a neck-up player, as we like to say, and showed again some very good poise.”
A case could be made for Nolte as player of the game. An equally convincing case probably could be made for Harris (22 points, five rebounds, five assists), or for Mitchell (11 points, 10 rebounds), or for sophomore forward Darion Atkins (14 points, seven rebounds, two blocked shots, one assist, one steal).
Harris, whose previous season high was 20 points, put the Cavaliers ahead for good Wednesday with a trey that made it 41-38 with 9:29 left.
This is Bennett’s fourth season at UVa, and one of his first recruits was Harris, who’s from Chelan, Wash., some 2,600 miles from Charlottesville.
“Joe took a step of faith to come to Virginia,” Bennett recalled. “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 have that kind of game.”
Mitchell’s double-double was his third of the season, and he made 3 of 4 free throws in the final 33 seconds. Atkins’ previous career high in points was 11. Mitchell and Atkins helped Virginia outrebound Wisconsin 36-25.
“They just kind of out-toughed us tonight,” said Wisconsin center Jared Berggren. “Those are two good players, two hungry kids who work hard, and they got the best of us tonight.”
Ryan said: “I thought those two guys just willed their team to winning.”
The victory was their fourth straight for the `Hoos since a dispiriting Nov. 13 loss to Delaware at John Paul Jones Arena. That defeat came four nights after Virginia’s season-opening loss at George Mason.
The `Hoos, for all intents and purposes, were without a true point guard in those games. Bennett was able to rotate Evans and freshman Teven Jones at the point Wednesday night, and it was no coincidence that UVa, in its most impressive performance of the season, held the Badgers to 38.2-percent accuracy from the floor.
“In this setting I thought we did grow up a little bit and showed some poise,” Bennett said. “We’ve got real unselfish guys, and I think our guys know — at least they have a feel — for how we have to play to have a chance. They’re a humble group, and I enjoy coaching them. We know we’ve got a lot of work left, but this was very good. And they wanted it. They knew how important it was, with my background being here and the history, to try to give everything they could, and that was kind of special when we went in the locker room after.”
On a personal level, UVa’s Paul Jesperson did not have as much success in his first college game in his home state. Jesperson, a native of Merrill, Wis., about 165 miles north of Madison, started but went scoreless in 24 minutes, missing all three of his shots from the floor. Still, the 6-6 sophomore happily visited with friends and family after Virginia improved to 3-1 under Bennett in ACC/Big Ten Challenge games.
The joke before this game was that the first team to 60 would win, and that proved to be accurate. At the heart of Bennett’s coaching philosophy, like Ryan’s, is an unwavering commitment to rugged defense and patient offense.
“I was going to even hold up a mirror and say, `There’s subtle differences, but you’re going to be playing against a team that values good shots and is going to try to make you work defensively,’ ” Bennett said. “And I think that our guys were really ready for a battle. They knew how they had to play, with patience and then toughness.”
No Cavalier is tougher than Evans, who made the ACC’s all-defensive team in 2011-12. The 5-11 Evans had surgery Oct. 2 to repair a stress fracture in his right foot and played only three minutes in Virginia’s first six games. He logged 16 minutes Wednesday night and, not surprisingly, was not sharp offensively. Bennett isn’t worried.
“I think his best basketball’s in front of him,” Bennett said. “He looked a little rusty at times, but again, we’ll keep working with him, and he’ll get more minutes, and I thought Teven in stretches did a good job, so it’s nice to have two guys that can always put pressure on the ball. That’s important for our defense.”
Harris’ two free throws with 58 seconds left gave UVa a 57-50 lead, but Wisconsin rallied behind Berggren, and it was 57-54 when Mitchell was fouled with 33.2 seconds remaining.
The sight of Mitchell at the line has not always inspired confidence among UVa fans — or the team’s coaches. He made only 51.7 percent of his free throws as a freshman and dipped to 50.9 percent as a sophomore. But Mitchell’s offseason labors continue to pay dividends, and he coolly sank the front end of this one-and-one to make it a two-possession game.
For the season, Mitchell is shooting 76.3 percent (29 of 38) from the line.
“I don’t know what it is,” he said. “I just feel a lot more confident as a player in stepping to the free-throw line.”
Wisconsin, down 58-54 with 33 seconds left, still had a chance. But UVa’s suffocating defense forced the Badgers to settle for an off-balance 3-point attempt by sharp-shooter Ben Brust. His shot didn’t come close, and Mitchell sealed the victory with two more free throws.
“That was probably the sweetest thing for me,” Bennett said, “to in a sense win it on a good defensive stand at the end.”
Mitchell said: “I gathered the guys around before that last possession and told them, `This is what we do. This is what we’ve built our program on, and we gotta lock down defensively,’ and I feel like we really did that the last couple minutes, so I’m proud of my team.”
Virginia’s next four games are at JPJ, starting Saturday afternoon. At 4 o’clock, UVa hosts Bennett’s alma mater, Green Bay (3-3).