PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — Wisconsin coach Greg Gard wanted his 25th-ranked Badgers prove they’ve matured enough to play more consistently on defense, from following scheme rules to quickly fixing their own mistakes.
Wednesday’s opener at the Battle 4 Atlantis offered a glimpse of that, a welcome early sign after last year’s uncharacteristic struggles.
“It’s something that we’ve been stressing since way back in the summer,” preseason Associated Press All-American Ethan Happ said after the 62-46 win against Stanford.
The Badgers’ strong defensive performance came in one of four first-round games in the Bahamas, with Oklahoma beating Florida, Dayton beating Butler and fourth-ranked Virginia topping Middle Tennessee to reach Thursday’s semifinals.
A year ago, Wisconsin allowed opponents to average 66 points and shoot 45.9 percent. That was the program’s worst scoring defense since the 1994-95 season and worst field-goal percentage defense since 1992-93. Not coincidentally, those Badgers won 15 games and missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998.
On Wednesday, Wisconsin (4-0) held the Cardinal to 27 percent and didn’t allow a field goal in the last 6:53 of a game when they didn’t shoot well themselves (43 percent, 1 for 8 from 3-point range). That last basket was a 3-pointer by KZ Okpala to pull the Cardinal (2-2) to within 44-42, but the Badgers scored 18 of the final 22 points to pull away.
It was the lowest shooting percentage allowed by Wisconsin against a power-5 or Big East opponent since holding Virginia to 23.4 percent in December 2013.
“They do a nice job of packing it in,” Stanford coach Jerod Haase said. “They did a nice job of being physical on our drives. And when we did get to the paint, I would say there were a variety of times where we shot challenged shots where we really didn’t have to.”
That’s where Wisconsin’s 6-foot-10 sophomore Nate Reuvers came in, blocking a tournament-record nine shots — tying a program record — primarily by rotating to help at the rim.
“Before the game, Coach was talking about if a guy has a mistake on defense, we had to cover for each other,” he said.
He listened. So did the rest of the Badgers, for that matter.
“You talk about these things all the time,” Gard said, “but then when they have a game play out that way, it cements the belief in how we’re doing things and allows their confidence. Everybody always talks about confidence in an offensive end … but that can be flipped to the other end of the floor too.”
NO. 4 VIRGINIA 74, MIDDLE TENNESSEE 52
De’Andre Hunter was everywhere for fourth-ranked Virginia, finishing with 15 points, eight rebounds and a career-high nine assists.
“I thought De’Andre’s completeness showed offensively and defensively,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said.
The 6-7 sophomore’s size and athleticism caused problems for the Blue Raiders on the perimeter.
“We really spaced the floor (against) the 1-3-1 press,” Hunter said. “And I was just looking for my shot when the guys kicked it to me in the corner.”
Kyle Guy also scored 15 points for the Cavaliers (4-0), who led 9-0 and 30-9. But they needed Guy’s 3-pointer to start a 9-0 run after the Blue Raiders had clawed to within 38-30 early in the second half.
Antonio Green scored 11 points to lead Middle Tennessee (3-2), which shot 39 percent.
The Cavaliers advanced to Thursday’s semifinals to face Dayton, while the Blue Raiders will face Butler in the consolation bracket.
OKLAHOMA 65, FLORIDA 60
Christian James scored 18 points to help Oklahoma earn a matchup with Wisconsin in the semifinals.
Aaron Calixte hit two clinching free throws with 5.0 seconds left for the Sooners (4-0), who led by 11 in the first half and 63-54 with 3:38 left before holding off the Gators’ late rally. And Oklahoma helped itself by taking a 48-34 rebounding advantage.
Reserve Dontay Bassett had 14 points for the Gators (2-2), who hit a season-high 11 3-pointers. But Gators had to work awfully hard to find any offensive flow and made 3 of 11 free throws.
“I don’t think we’re a team with a bunch of swagger right now,” Florida coach Mike White said. “I think confidence is a big issue with this team right now. It’s something that we’ve got to get to the bottom of.”
Florida will face Stanford in Thursday’s consolation bracket.
DAYTON 69, BUTLER 64
Jalen Crutcher scored 20 points and Josh Cunningham added 18 to help the Flyers advance to face Virginia in Thursday’s semifinals. Dayton (4-0) never trailed and shot 54 percent against the Bulldogs (3-1).
Paul Jorgensen and Sean McDermott each scored 18 points to lead Butler, but high-scoring guard Kamar Baldwin finished with 11 on 5-for-17 shooting after coming in averaging 23.3 points.
Butler will face Middle Tennessee in Thursday’s consolation bracket.
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