PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas – The University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team learned a lot about itself after playing three games in 48 hours at Imperial Arena.
The main lesson Friday afternoon? That it isn’t quite ready to beat one of the best teams in the nation.
De’Andre Hunter and No. 4 Virginia pounded that message home during a 53-46 win over the No. 25 Badgers in the championship game of the Battle 4 Atlantis.
Hunter, the tournament MVP, finished with 20 points as the Cavaliers (6-0) built a big halftime lead and held on to hand UW its first defeat of the season.
UW coach Greg Gard appreciated the heart and toughness his team showed while clawing back in the game in the second half. But the 15-point halftime deficit the Badgers faced felt like twice that much considering who their opponent was Friday.
“There’s no doubt that we were better in the second half than we were in the first, so that was a step in the right direction from one 20 to the next 20,” Gard said. “But the problem is, with a low-possession game it’s a big hole to have to dig out of. You have to have almost everything go right offensively in the second half.”
Senior center Ethan Happ finished with 22 points, 15 rebounds and six assists, but he didn’t get enough help from his teammates. The rest of the Badgers combined for 24 points on 10-of-29 shooting.
The Badgers (5-1) had a better field goal percentage than the Cavaliers and finished with two more rebounds. But Virginia was the clear winner in one significant statistical category, finishing with five turnovers compared to 13 for the Badgers.
Happ finished with six turnovers for UW, which finished more than 20 percent of its 58 possessions without even attempting a shot.
“Coach already talked to us in the locker room about it and gave the example of in this tight of a game, you’d want to have 13 more possessions where you get a shot at the (basket),” Happ said. “I had damn near had half of them, so that’s going to be a lot of reflecting on when I should have done something different or when I should have just backed it out. Turnovers get magnified when Virginia and Wisconsin play.”
Virginia coach Tony Bennett made two changes to his starting lineup in order to match up better with UW.
The first was inserting freshman point guard Kihei Clark – his first career start – to essentially attach himself to UW sophomore D’Mitrik Trice. After making seven 3-pointers and scoring a career-high 25 points in a semifinal win over Oklahoma on Wednesday, Trice was held to five points on 2-of-9 shooting by Clark and the Cavaliers.
The other change Bennett made was starting fifth-year senior Jack Salt at center to deal with Happ in the paint. While Happ was chasing around Hunter on one end of the court, he was dealing with the physical play the 232-pound Salt was dishing out on the other end.
“It was just sort of a slugfest at the end,” Bennett said, “and I’m happy we were the last man standing.”
Down the stretch, the theme of Bennett’s message in huddles during breaks was about refusing to yield.
“I kept trying to say, ‘I love being in this spot, keep fighting, let’s see what we can do,’ ” Bennett said.
What the Cavaliers did was hold off a methodical push from the Badgers.
UW outscored Virginia 17-7 over the first 10 minutes, 14 seconds of the second half and pulled within 40-35 after a free throw by Trice.
But the Badgers went their next six possessions without scoring and the Cavaliers were able to extend their cushion back to double figures.
Happ scored to cut Virginia’s lead to 51-46 with 1:12 and it appeared the Badgers forced a five-second call in the backcourt. But no call was made and junior guard Kyle Guy made a free throw after Salt extended the possession with an offensive rebound.
After Trice turned the ball over, Hunter made it a three-possession game by making a free throw with 16.7 seconds left.
“Every basket you had to fight for,” Bennett said after his team shot 37 percent overall and 25.9 percent in the second half. “I think there was some fatigue on both teams, being the last game, but I think Wisconsin is really good. I think they’ve improved a lot.
“I think they’re very well coached, and I’m not just saying that because Greg’s a friend. I know what I see and they have very good players.”
The Badgers hadn’t dealt with much stress in their first five games of the season, but that changed against their first ranked opponent. UW, which trailed for only 10:45 of the 200 minutes it had played prior to Friday, never led against the Cavaliers.
UW trailed 21-16 when Happ went to the bench with 5:01 left until halftime after picking up his second foul.
Disaster ensued for the Badgers. UW had five consecutive empty possessions, Guy and junior guard Ty Jerome hit 3-pointers, Hunter scored inside and Gard was forced to put Happ back in the game.
Happ ended UW’s drought with a basket, but Virginia was still able to take a 33-18 lead into the break.
Not even UW’s star could help the Badgers dig their way out of that massive hole, especially after UW went 2 of 11 from 3-point range a day after making 14 of 22 against Oklahoma.
“You have to be able to find ways when the ball doesn’t go in,” Gard said. “When the ball goes in (Thursday), we look like a million bucks when you make 14 3s. But we have to be able to be solid and sound in the other areas when it doesn’t.”
Happ and Gard both said they feel good about the strides the Badgers have made through the first two weeks of the season. UW hosts North Carolina State on Tuesday in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge before opening Big Ten play at Iowa later in the week.
“Tony’s got a good team, there’s no doubt,” Gard said after losing to Virginia for the second consecutive year. “That’s an experienced, very well-prepared, very sound team that’s a great test for us this early in the year. This game – all three games – will make us better as we go back home.”