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Thursday, December 3, 2009

Wisconsin Stares Down the Devils

Nearly perfect.

That's the only way I can describe Wisconsin's wire-to-wire, 73-69 victory over No. 6 Duke to all but clinch the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. In fact last night, I could not even articulate the joy when Jordan Taylor's free throw fell true with two seconds remaining.

Sure, I gave the Badgers a chance in this game, but realistically, I did not expect the Badgers to put together the perfect game it would take to beat the Dukies. As it turned out, UW only turned the ball over five times, including once on a shot-clock violation. That is perfection in my book. Wisconsin turned Duke over 11 times with some timely blocked shots and steals, which the Blue Devils (6-1) could not duplicate with their own defense.

Even so, Wisconsin (5-1) didn't need everything else to be flawless after all. For example:

- It's hard to believe Wisconsin, who started the game shooting nearly 70% from the floor, wound up with lower FG, 3FG and FT percentages than Duke, but still won. [box score]

- It's hard to believe that while Kyle Singler scored at will in the first half (7-of-10 FGs) and scored a game-high 28 points, Wisconsin still won. Just as surprising was that Bo Ryan did not hesitate to throw different defenders at him. Even when it seemed Singler was wearing through a new Badger defender, the combinations eventually wore him down.

Bo has an infinitely wiser basketball mind than me, but is often so set in his upperclassmen-centric, man-to-man ways that his fairly short leash on junior Tim Jarmusz was refreshing. The second attempt was redshirt freshman Ryan Evans, who also couldn't slow Singler in the first half. As Jay Bilas pointed out at halftime, Bo's most effective defense was actually the smaller, quicker Taylor at the end of the first half. But to start the second half, there was Keaton Nankivil isolated on Singler. Then Bo switched back to the Evans & Taylor duo that got the job done down the stretch.

- It's hard to believe that even though Jason Bohannon could not buy a bucket from outside (0-6 on 3-pointers) or keep up with Andre Dawkins (who hit three straight treys in a 1:40 stretch) at the end, and Jon Leuer went ice cold in the second half, Wisconsin still won. God bless Trevon Hughes.

Hughes was mercurial in victory. He did not have a single turnover. He took a lot of shots from every range, but hit them (68.7 eFG%) for a career-high 26 points. The threat of his penetration allowed a few 3-point daggers from the bigs. My only gripe is that he didn't demand the ball on the final possessions, when UW got a bad shot from Evans and a lot of dribbling from Taylor.

- It's hard to believe that without the eight free throw attempts that came when Duke was deliberately fouling, Wisconsin was again on its way to attempting fewer free throws than its opponent made. And UW still handed Duke it's first-ever loss in the Challenge.

The most important factor in beating Duke was the 19-9 lead the Badgers quickly built in the first five and a half minutes. Apparently Wisconsin does remember how to play with a lead (unlike last year). Hughes said it best in the post-game when he talked about the team staying very loose in the early going, which enabled the Badgers to hit all their open looks. This was possible thanks to great passing and ball movement from each player, highlighted by the team's season-high 17 assists.

Oddly, the only one of my pregame keys to winning that Wisconsin accomplished was rebounding, where they battled Duke to a 32-32 draw. When you consider that several clutch rebounds to preserve the win came from the inexperienced Evans and the 6'2" Bohannon, you can see even more clearly the total team effort.

An almost unbelievable win.

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