MADISON, Wis. — Virginia Coach Tony Bennett admitted he was a bit emotional when he walked into the Kohl Center on Wednesday and glanced up at the banners hanging in the rafters. It reminded Bennett, a Wisconsin native, of the years he spent as an assistant here under his father, Dick, and when first got the itch to become a head coach.
By the time he left the arena, though, Bennett might have authored his best Madison memory yet.
The Cavaliers stunned Wisconsin, 60-54, in front of 16,690 red-and-white clad fans, dealing the Badgers their first home loss in a November nonconference game since 1997. In fact, it was just the seventh time Wisconsin (4-3) has suffered a home nonconference loss during Coach Bo Ryan’s 12 years leading the program.
Perhaps more satisfying is that the young Cavaliers (5-2), who had dropped two games to Colonial Athletic Association competition this year, showed off the sort of moxie that have defined Bennett’s teams in recent years. They valued possessions, won the rebounding battle and played tenacious defense down the stretch.
“It’s definitely gonna boost our team morale. A big win like this, it’s definitely an upset, especially in their gym,” said forward Darion Atkins, who finished with a career-high 14 points and seven rebounds in the game, which was part of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. “From here on out, we know what we can do. We did it tonight.”
Junior Joe Harris led the charge for Virginia, scoring a game-high 22 points to go along with five rebounds and five assists. He was key early, finishing with 13 first-half points when each team struggled offensively, and then came up big late.
Harris’s three-point play off an offensive rebound gave the Cavaliers a 55-47 lead with three minutes remaining. He celebrated by slamming his palm against the hardwood, and it was a moment that epitomized the entire night. Virginia simply would not be denied despite entering a difficult environment as a double-digit underdog.
It showed in their aggressiveness on the glass. Atkins and junior Akil Mitchell (11 points, 10 rebounds) were the catalysts as the Cavaliers outrebounded Wisconsin’s senior-laden front court, 36-25. Ryan even made it a point during his postgame news conference to note they “willed their team to a victory.”
“You’ve got to be really good to beat them and we played as sound a game as we’ve played so far,” Bennett added.
That included the one time in the second half when the Cavaliers found themselves in a hole. After leading much of the game, Virginia fell behind by five when Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker and Ben Brust (team-high 15 points) hit consecutive three-pointers to cap an 8-1 run.
But Bennett called timeout to calm his troops — “I’ve seen a lot of teams just fold at that point in this environment,” he noted after the game — and they responded. Buoyed by two three-pointers and beautiful post feed to Mitchell by freshman Evan Nolte, the Cavaliers proceeded to score on their next eight possessions and never looked back.
One person who not in attendance to witness Virginia’s victory was Bennett’s father, who instead spoke to the Cavaliers during a Tuesday night shoot-around. That, though, mattered little to Tony Bennett, especially since the game ended with a sequence his father was undoubtedly smiling about.
With Wisconsin trailing by four, Brust could only muster a desperation heave as the shot clock expired with Harris hounding him on every dribble.
“That was probably the sweetest thing for me in a sense. Win it on a defensive stand,” Bennett said.