The Villanova Wildcats defeated the University of Connecticut Huskies 68-60 on Saturday, behind 20 points from Collin Gillespie and a double double from Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. The Huskies were led by 21 points from James Bouknight in his second game back from elbow surgery, but a dismal second half shooting performance doomed them to the loss. UConn falls to 10-6, 7-6 in the Big East, while Villanova improves to 14-3, 9-2 in the conference.
Villanova held the Huskies to just 36% from the field, including 30% in the second half. UConn made just seven threes, shooting under 26% from behind the arc.
“We just got away from defense,” head coach Jay Wright said, referring to last weekend’s blowout loss against Creighton. “They really stepped it up today, they had a good week in practice. It shows what you emphasize, they’re gonna be good at.”
The Wildcats started the game quickly, with baskets on the first three possessions to race out to a 6-0 lead. But the Huskies roared back, as two threes from guard James Bouknight put UConn ahead 10-9. Bouknight scored 10 of the first 12 Husky points, before needing to come off briefly for treatment on his elbow.
The game stayed even throughout the middle of the first half, as the Wildcats held a 23-21 advantage at the under-eight minute media timeout. Despite the scoreline, the Huskies were struggling to create any offense beyond Bouknight, as the rest of the team combined to shoot just 3-13.
A 6-0 Husky run grabbed UConn their second lead of the game at 27-25, and the lead swapped hands many times over the remaining five minutes of the half. Villanova went into the break with a 34-32 lead after holding the Huskies scoreless for the last 2:20 of the half, behind 10 points from Gillespie and 9 from Robinson-Earl. Bouknight was the leader for UConn, with a game-high 14 points through the first 20 minutes.
The second half began much slower than the first, as both sides struggled to regain an offensive rhythm. Within the first four minutes, the Huskies had two turnovers, and the Wildcats had committed four more. To compound the offensive struggle, ten fouls were called through the first 6:30 of the half.
Up 45-42, Jermaine Samuels went looking for a spark for the Wildcats, diving into the stands after a loose pass, and forcing a Husky turnover on the next possession. The call was answered, albeit delayed, as tough Wildcat defense held the Huskies scoreless for 2:58, opening the then largest lead of the day for ‘Nova at 53-45.
“By the middle of the second half, we kinda got a feel for what they were trying to do, and got comfortable defending it. I don’t think we were ever comfortable before that, but we were battling,” Wright said.
Brandon Slater was the player assigned to UConn’s Bouknight for the majority of the game, and he shut down the sophomore for much of the second half.
“It’s a team defense, so I can’t take the credit just myself. It’s all my guys,” Slater said.
Yet Jay Wright summed up what Slater’s performance meant to the team, saying “Slater was great. He’s a really good defensive player, and he did a great job on him, even in the first half. We just did a really good job in the second half, especially with Slater, getting up in him and contesting those threes.”
With five minutes remaining, the Wildcats had not hit a field goal for 2:55, yet led by eight as the Huskies had not made a shot from the field in well over six minutes. A dunk from Justin Moore extended the ‘Cats lead to ten.
UConn tried to get back into the game, but a slow tempo from the Wildcats kept the Huskies at arm’s length. A three from RJ Cole cut the ‘Cats lead to seven, and after Gillespie travelled, Adama Sanogo brought UConn within five. Yet Gillespie bled the clock down to the final seconds, and hit a triple to beat the buzzer and extend the lead back to eight.
Yet the Huskies continued pressing. With 34.7 seconds left, Bouknight hit a three to pull UConn within six, his first field goal since midway through the first half. The Huskies were unable to get any closer, losing by a final score of 68-60.
“I think it was a great performance today. Most importantly, we held them to 36% shooting today, and that’s a goal for us going into every game, playing really hard on the defensive end and holding them to under 40%,” Robinson-Earl said. “I think we did a great job today with that.”
The next game for the Wildcats is a rematch at home against St John’s, with tip off set for 8 PM on Tuesday. The Red Storm enters the game in fifth place in the conference, and hoping to beat Villanova twice in the same season for the first time since 1999.