Impossible? No, but the Badgers knew to do the impossible it needed to be spot on for 40 minutes and get a little bit of luck in the process. It was mission accomplished … until a heated timeout conversation in the North Carolina huddle certainly lit a match.
The Tar Heels broke out of their game long shooting slump with a decisive 18-5 run, engineered by All-American Harrison Barnes scoring 10 of his game-high 20 points, to help North Carolina stave off Wisconsin to a hard-fought 60-57 victory in front of 21,750 that extended its home court winning streak to 19 games.
It wasn't easy, not by a long shot.
Wisconsin – denied its first 7-0 start since the 1993-94 season - was doing everything it wanted to do in order to beat a team like North Carolina. Entering the under 12 media timeout, Wisconsin controlled the pace, had shut down the Tar Heels' perimeter game, limited fast-break opportunities and even outmuscled the fifth-ranked team in the country in their baby blue backyard.
Problem was that it's hard to keep a good team, or a good player for the fact, down for too long.
Barnes, who was a game-time decision after tweaking his right ankle in Saturday's 90-80 loss to UNLV, simply exercised his will against a Wisconsin frontcourt not used to his size. He used his teammates to create screens and hit 3-pointers from the perimeter, he used his length to score inside and he used his size to draw fouls and make free throws.
"I think that they won (the momentum battle) early in the game, but towards the second half we started pressing a little bit more," said Barnes, whose team scored eight points from the free-throw line on the run. "That kind of sped the pace up which was more our style."
But the Badgers were denied their first victory over a top 5 team on the road since beating No.4 Ohio State, 72-71, on Jan. 26 1980, a span of 16 straight games, because the basket wasn't kind to them.
Entering the night shooting 47.2 percent from three-point range (second best in the nation) and 49.4 percent overall, Wisconsin was cold from the start and never truly heated up, finishing 8 of 28 from 3-point range (28.6 percent) and 35.9 percent overall (23 of 64).
Senior guard Jordan Taylor was the biggest culprit. He scored 18 points to lead UW, but missed 14 of 20 field-goal attempts, including 8 of his 11 from three-point range. Taylor was 2-for-5 in the final six minutes, including an open 3-pointer with 17 seconds left that could have cut the score to 59-57. He also missed 3 of his 6 free-throw attempts, the only UW player to attempt a free throw.
"It would be nice (to shoot more free throws) but it's hard because they don't have to leave their feet to block a lot of shots or to clog up the lane with their length," said UW coach Bo Ryan. "You definitely want to shoot more if you can, but we're playing from behind and they really didn't have to follow us."
In a hyped match-up of premier point guards, neither Taylor nor UNC sophomore Kendall Marshall (four points) blew the top off the Dome, but it was a bigger detriment to Wisconsin considering the importance of its senior.
"Some (shots) were forced, definitely in that run we forced some shots, but we had quite a few good looks that just didn't go down," said Taylor. "A lot of people might attribute that to their length but those are shots we've been taking every day since a week after the season ended last year."
Juniors Jared Berggren (14 points) and Ryan Evans (10 points, 7 rebounds) were big contributors, but couldn't help Taylor and Wisconsin extend the game in the final minute. Even though UW scored buckets on four of its final five possessions, the Tar Heels cashed in by going 16-18 from the free throw line in the second half.
"Getting good looks isn't the easiest thing in the world," said Ryan, who was an assistant on that staff in 1980. "I always keep referencing back to Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) when he told the little kid in Airplane, ‘You tell your dad to try and drag those guys up and down the court.' It was hard. It was hard to get a good look. That was as hard of fought game as I have been in as a head coach"
For all the things that went wrong in the first half for Wisconsin, the 25-24 halftime deficit was a minor miracle. Wisconsin won the first four minutes by being more aggressive on the offensive glass, keeping its tempo and hitting shots, likely a product of Jump Around being playing over the PA and the Badgers' bench doing what the song asks. Problem was it was only four minutes.
An 8-0 run by North Carolina out of the first media timeout all came in transition, executing the same fast-paced style that ran the Badgers out of Duke's Cameron Indoor four years ago.
Ten of Wisconsin's first 15 shots were from 3-point range and one of the best perimeter shooting teams in the nation went 2-for-10 from three and 5-for-16 from the floor.
Still, the Badgers were in the game because of eight first-half UNC turnovers and a 12-2 run over an 8 minute, 12 second stretch late in the first half that gave Wisconsin a 22-21 lead with 2:25 to go. Throw in North Carolina missing 13 of its last 16 shots, the confidence was building on every possession for Wisconsin.
In the end, everything went right for the Badgers except for the final outcome.