There was one big question for North Carolina going into their game with Wisconsin in the final night of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge: would they be able to play effectively in a tempo nowhere near what they look to establish on a nightly basis? Thanks to a second half run from Harrison Barnes and the excellent defense of Dexter Strickland, the Tar Heels passed said test with a 60-57 win over the Badgers in Chapel Hill. While the game didn't have any bearing on the result of the entire Challenge, which the Big Ten had comfortably wrapped up by the time the late games began, it could have long-term effects for a team that annually ranks among the nation's leaders in possessions per game.
A Barnes three pointer with 11:40 left in the game began an 18-5 North Carolina run, and the Heels wouldn't trail again despite a late Badger rally. Barnes scored ten of those points and finished with 20 while fellow frontcourt players Tyler Zeller (12 points, seven rebounds) and John Henson (eight points, 17 rebounds and five blocks) also played well for the 6-1 Tar Heels. But the biggest contribution outside of the scoring came from Dexter Strickland, who was given the task of guarding All-America point guard Jordan Taylor for good in the second half. Taylor, who was also guarded by Kendall Marshall at times, led Wisconsin with 18 points but he needed 20 shots to reach that total, making six.
"It was a difficult game for us," said head coach Roy Williams. "Jordan Taylor just dominates the ball so effectively, and yet you have to congratulate Kendall and Dexter because its hard to guard that guy. I was very pleased with what we did defensively."
One statistical category to take note of was Wisconsin's assist numbers, which underlines the effectiveness of North Carolina's defense. The Badgers assisted on just six of their twenty-three field goals, with Taylor having four, a far cry from their season averages in assists per game (15.6) and assist percentage (average of 57.4%; Wednesday's number was 26.1%). The Badgers also had two starters, Josh Gasser and Mike Bruesewitz, go scoreless as they put up matching 0-for-3 (0-for-2 3PT) stat lines. In a game as close as this one, Bo Ryan's team could ill-afford an off night from one starter much less two. UNC's length limited the number of good looks for Wisconsin, who made just eight of their 28 three-point attempts on the night.
"They're long and quick and getting good looks isn't the easiest thing in the world," said Ryan. "It was hard to get good looks. That was as hard fought a game as I have ever been in as a coach."
Next up for North Carolina is a matchup in Lexington with Kentucky on Saturday in a much-anticipated game that will be far different than Wednesday's battle. But if anything the need to shift from fast (UNLV) to slow (Wisconsin) and back to fast could be a benefit for the Heels as the season rolls on. After being outworked on Saturday night, North Carolina showed that they're capable of winning a game that gets them out of their comfort zone.
Other Notable Happenings
1. What a night for basketball in southern California. Creighton comes back to beat San Diego State and UNLV holds off UCSB in a double-overtime thriller.
Two games on the West coast proved to be the gems of the night, and while the competitive nature of the contests was to be expected few had any idea they'd end up being as good as they turned out to be. Creigton trailed by as many as 17 points in the first half at San Diego State, but Greg McDermott's team steadily worked its way back into the contest in front of a frenzied crowd at Viejas Arena. And thanks to Doug McDermott (25 points, 12 rebounds), Ethan Wragge (19 points in 19 minutes off th bench) and a crucial loose ball recovered by Jahenns Manigat in chasing down his own missed free throw, the Bluejays escaped with an 85-83 victory. In the second half Creighton scored 50 points and turned the ball over just once, and they needed that kind of play to beat a tough Aztec team led by Xavier Thames' 21 points.
As for UNLV they and the Gauchos of UCSB put on a show for the ages at the Thunderdome, with Mike Moser (34 points, 10 rebounds) and UCSB's Orlando Johnson (36 points, 10 rebounds) standing out. There were three key plays late in regulation and the first overtime session that would move this contest from the "good game" category to "classic". Anthony Marshall's missed layup with 34 seconds remaining kept the door open for the Gauchos, who would cut the lead to one on the ensuing possession as Johnson score three the old-fashioned way. In the final seconds Johnson missed a free throw on purpose, which big man Greg Somogyi would rebound and score to send the game into overtime tied at 71. UCSB had Vegas on the ropes but a Chace Stanback three with 1.7 seconds left in OT tied the score at 84. Moser and Johnson would foul out in the second overtime, and UNLV was able to survive thanks in part to Stanback (all 19 of his points in the second half or overtime). What a night on the West coast.
2. Indiana's improved play in the second half keeps them undefeated.
Tom Crean's Hoosiers are an improved basketball team, something they've shown throughout their 7-0 start. But there have still been naysayers, who chose to point out who the Hoosiers have played instead of focusing more on how they've played. No room for that in the aftermath of Wednesday's 86-75 win at NC State, as the Hoosiers displayed improved levels of both skill and toughness in picking up a critical road victory. Jordan Hulls led the way with 20 points and five assists but the big star arguably was freshman Cody Zeller, who scored 19 points, grabbed seven rebounds and blocked two shots in his fifth straight double-digit scoring game. Lorenzo Brown led four NC State players in double figures with 19 points, but the Wolfpack were done in late as Indiana scored the final ten points of the game. Baby steps should be taken in discussing Indiana, but there's no mistaking the fact that this is an improved basketball team that's trending up.
3. Denver hands Utah State their first home loss in 34 games.
The four-game stretch that began with a trip to California and ends with a home contest against high-scoring Iona on December 7th was seen by some as a defining one for Joe Scott's Denver Pioneers. And if their 67-54 win at Utah State doesn't qualify as a defining win for the Pioneers you'll be hard-pressed to find one that will, as they wouldn't trail again after a Brian Stafford three gave Denver a 5-4 lead with 18:14 remaining in the first half. Rob Lewis and Chris Udofia led four starter in double figures with 15 points apiece, and a 12-2 run to start the second half established a margin that Utah State could not recover from. The win ended Utah State's 33-game home win streak, and given their experience and system there's no reason why Denver can't be a factor in the Sun Belt once conference play begins.
1. Jim Baron attempted to send a message to his Rhode Island team by going with an entirely new starting lineup at Brown. It didn't seem to get through as URI lost 65-56 to the Bears, dropping to 1-6 on the season. Billy Baron and Andre Malone should help once they become eligible in December, but will it be too late by then?
2. Staying in the Atlantic 10, Dayton sure didn't handle their first game since winning the Old Spice Classic in good fashion as they were blown out by Buffalo 84-55. At home. Two things to take from the result: Javon McCrea and company are pretty good, and there's still plenty for Archie Miller and his staff to do with the Flyers.
3. Keith Appling played his best game of the season in Michigan State's 65-49 win over Florida State, scoring 24 points and grabbing seven rebounds. A key for the Spartans' improved play of late has been the progression of freshman point guard Travis Trice, whose emergence has allowed Appling to play at his more natural shooting guard spot.
4. Virginia Tech may have picked up a loss that could weigh them down come March as they fell 58-55 at Minnesota. The Golden Gophers were without Trevor Mbakwe, but the Hokies were unable to take advantage as Dorenzo Hudson (zero points) and Dorian Finney-Smith (three points) were slient offensively.
5. Don't overlook Ohio's 70-68 win at previously undefeated Marshall, with Reggie Keely leading four Bobcats in double figures with 16 points. Ohio's reserves outscored Marshall's bench 28-11 on the night. To say the least it was a good night for the MAC.
6. Northern Iowa knocked off Iowa State 69-62 in Ames with Anthony James scoring 17 points to lead the way. Ben Jacobson's Panthers got it done on the defensive end, holding Iowa State 19 points below their offensive efficiency average for the season.
7. In their first game without the services of center Dwayne Dedmon, who will miss the next 6-8 weeks with a stress fracture in his foot, USC beat UC Riverside 56-37. Dedmon's injury makes it even tougher for Kevin O'Neill in regards to dealing with a team that already lacked depth.
Three Notable Performances
1. F Mike Moser (UNLV) and G Orlando Johnson (UCSB)
These were two of the stars in the game of the night, which UNLV won 94-88 in double overtime. Moser finished with 34 points, 10 rebounds and three assists while Johnson paced the Gauchos with 36 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, three steals and two blocks.
2. F Doug McDermott (Creighton)
25 points and 12 rebounds in the Bluejays' 85-83 win at San Diego State.
3. G James Kinney (San Jose State)
30 points (7-12 3PT) in the Spartans' 72-66 win over UTSA.