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UConn men’s basketball falls just short at Villanova, 61-55

The Huskies played well enough to win but lost control down the stretch.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

The UConn men’s basketball team continues to find new and creative ways to break your heart. The Huskies fell to future Big East pal Villanova, 55-61, on Saturday afternoon, coming up just short in another tight battle with a future conference opponent.

UConn — now 10-7 on the year — went toe-to-toe with the Wildcats in an exciting, emotional contest, but wasn’t able to pull off the upset. Senior Christian Vital led UConn with 13 points and eight rebounds, while juniors Josh Carlton and Alterique Gilbert each added 12. With their best shooter sidelined, the Huskies were ice-cold from three, going 2-15 from downtown and only managing three free throws.

UConn’s dribble hand-offs found some rare success early, as Carlton established himself down low. The Huskies jumped out to an 11-4 lead after Akok Akok served up two straight rejections and promptly nailed a three on the other end.

But Villanova has a history of slow starts this year, and GQ-Jay’s teams always execute well enough to work their way back into it. Sure enough, two threes from Nova sophomore Saddiq Bey brought it back to a one possession game.

Despite making a 15-4 run, Villanova’s lead didn’t get any larger than six. The Wildcats were hellbent on taking advantage of mismatches in the paint, sending its guards to the block to initiate the offense. But UConn’s defense held tough, forcing the Wildcats into a three minute scoreless drought. On the other end, UConn was aggressive almost to a fault, getting whistled for four offensive fouls in the first half.

Four UConn turnovers in the last four-and-a-half minutes robbed UConn of any offensive momentum to close. The Huskies scored only 10 points in the last 14:37 of the half, and ‘Nova’s patient ball movement led to a 6-of-11 performance from three. UConn headed into the break down six, but there were reasons for optimism. UConn held an 18-11 advantage on the boards and scored 12 points in the paint, despite not shooting a single free throw.

Echoing the start of the game, the Huskies came out in the second half on fire and quickly tied things up. Carlton played with the confidence of a fresh fade, and Gilbert penetrated with poise. Villanova had no answer for their two-man game, with Colin Gillespie unable to keep Gilbert in front of him.

Gilbert took a quick seat after his third foul, but UConn kept up the barrage with strong drives from Vital and Brendan Adams. The Huskies made a 20-8 run that gave them a six-point lead with 11:28 left, as UConn was cruising. But Nova switched to a 2-3 zone, and Jay Wright had Gillespie back down the smaller Gilbert into the paint to set the offense, helping him wake up from his offensive slumber with six straight points.

Three free throws from Bouknight and a Gilbert floater put UConn back up five with 6:18 left. The game remained tight, with both teams trading body blows. A frenetic pace led to some sloppy UConn turnovers, and Nova rattled off an 11-3 run with two minutes left to reclaim the lead.

After a head-scratching no-look turnover from Gilbert, Nova went with its patented four-out one-in alignment, and the spread court off a pick-and-roll led to a Jermaine Samuels three. Down four with 36 seconds left, UConn would try to shorten the game, but the looks it got just didn’t fall. Ultimately, Villanova closed the game on an 18-7 run to pull out the victory.

Moral victories are for minor league coaches, said Jay-Z on the last good Kanye West album in 2010, but you have to be encouraged by the way has UConn competed in the last two games. They were right there with a solid Villanova team that practically never loses at home. Keep in mind, Nova has won 11 in row at the Wells Fargo center, 25 of their last 26, and blew UConn out on a neutral court last year. This is a Nova team without any scholarship seniors, so we’ll be seeing these players for the next few years in Big East play.

By now, even UConn fans sleeping under a rock know the team’s struggles on the road, let alone against top competition. UConn has lost its last seven true road games against Top 25 teams. Since the start of the 2014-15 season, UConn is 4-26 against ranked opponents. The Huskies are 1-11 on neutral floors and 0-7 on the road. Their last win over a ranked team in a true road game was on Jan. 16, 2014 at Memphis. Any way you slice it, its ugly.

But if the Huskies keep playing like the way they’ve shown in the last two games, those damning stats will soon become ancient history. And when you look at the level UConn played at in its two games against future Big East competition this year, the Huskies look ready to hit the ground running in the Big East next year.

Up next, the Huskies head to Houston to take on the Cougars on Thursday, Jan. 23. at 9 p.m. in a game that will be televised on ESPNU.