A Challenge that Shall Pay Off

Both No.5 North Carolina and No.9 Wisconsin will reap long-term benefits from Wednesday's showdown.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The folks in Las Vegas pegged No. 9 Wisconsin as a 7.5-point underdog, but the Wisconsin message boards were preparing for worse -- much worse.

After all, this was North Carolina – ranked fifth in the nation, down from No. 1 earlier this week – with three NBA-quality players in the frontcourt, a screaming, passionate fan base in the stands and tradition and history oozing from every corner of the Dean Dome.

Wisconsin, a school celebrating the 70th anniversary of its lone NCAA championship and with only one modern-era Final Four to its name, was expected to give the Tar Heels a needed rebound victory. That eventually came to pass, but through the first 33 minutes, the Badgers weren't simply hanging with North Carolina, they were beating the Tar Heels in front of an antsy North Carolina crowd.

Maybe that's why the consensus from both sides after the Tar Heels' gritty 60-57 victory in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge Wednesday was that this game -- though not the prettiest to watch -- may go a long way toward determining how far both teams play into March.

"That was as hard of fought game as I have been in as a coach," Wisconsin's Bo Ryan said.

North Carolina (6-1) had already been tested before Wisconsin showed up. In their first eight games – North Carolina plays No. 1 Kentucky on Saturday -- the Tar Heels will have faced five 2011 NCAA Tournament teams and back-to-back top 10 opponents for just the 16th time in the program's 101-year history.

But while the Tar Heels are used to up-tempo style of the ACC, Wisconsin (6-1) and the 39.2-point-per-game defense it entered the contest with gave the Tar Heels trouble. They shot just 42.2 percent Wednesday.

"Obviously, we wanted to run a little bit more, but they did a good job of controlling tempo," said sophomore guard Kendall Marshall after UNC was held to its fewest points at home since scoring 48 against Boston College last January. "They run their sets very well. They shoot very well, and they are just waiting for you to make one mistake."

It's one of the main reasons so many of North Carolina's NBA-quality players looked like they had muddled through a game with cement in their socks. They could only shake their heads when Wisconsin hit off-balance baskets with the shot clock winding down time and again.

"I think we are not so much tired but spent, mentally," said junior forward John Henson, whose eight points with well off his season average of 15.8. "We focused for 40 minutes. They made a run on us and came back … it was a tough one."

Unlike North Carolina, Wisconsin had yet to be challenged by a ranked opponent or play outside 200 miles of its campus in the school's first 6-0 start. The Badgers had been labeled as a team that put up gaudy numbers against ghastly competition. That assessment was proven false when Wisconsin forced North Carolina into 14 turnovers and allowed only two-fast break points.

"I was real pleased with (our transition defense)," Ryan said. "You don't do that to Carolina. Not too many teams do that to Carolina."

Wisconsin did, and despite the game's flaws, both teams took away valuable learning lessons. North Carolina now knows that it can win pretty – which is did by spanking Michigan State on an aircraft carrier – and win ugly, which is sometimes what it takes to add another banner to the crowded Dean Dome roof.

Disliked in Madison for having criticized Wisconsin during its 2000 Final Four run for physical, low- scoring play, North Carolina coach Roy Williams has a different appreciation for the Badgers after he saw his young team tested, pushed and pulled in more ways than it was during its weekend 90-80 loss to UNLV in Las Vegas.

"Fantastic college basketball game," said Williams Wednesday night. "Not the prettiest game at all, ever. Sometimes, you need to win like that. Like I told Bo, "I'm glad I don't play you anymore." It was a difficult game for us."

For the Badgers, only uncharacteristically poor shooting doomed them against one of the nation's very best teams. If they hadn't shot 8 for 28 from 3-point range (28.6 percent) and All-American point guard Jordan Taylor had found a shooter's roll on one of the 14 shots he missed, the story could have been completely different.

"It shows we are capable of playing with anyone in the country," said junior Jared Berggren. "There aren't many teams as talented as they are. It shows we can hang with them in a tough atmosphere at their place."

That's why Taylor would love to play the Tar Heels again. If both schools take what they learned from Wednesday night, it may very well happen in March.

"We always welcome the challenge," Taylor said.

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