Coming into the game with two straight wins, UConn (10-6, 7-6 Big East) seemed to have its act together in time for this marquee matchup against the Big East favorite. The Huskies couldn’t make good on a promising first half, down 34-32. Star guard James Bouknight cooled off in the second half and the team didn’t have enough offensive firepower to keep up.
“We have to get the ball moving better,” Hurley said. “The ball can’t just end up in [Bouknight]’s hands, trying to bail us out.”
Villanova (14-3, 9-2 Big East) was coming off a steep loss to conference heavyweight Creighton, but had a week to regroup and prepare for UConn. They prepared well, forcing UConn to play through its star, while also limiting his room to work. It was a close game most of the way through, but Jay Wright’s squad closed it out down by limiting mistakes down the stretch.
In his first start since returning from injury, Bouknight came out flying with 10 of UConn’s first 12 points. He took a hard fall midway through the first half and didn’t look the same the rest of the game, leaving the court for a bit and finishing with 21 points on 7-17 shooting with 10 rebounds and an assist. UConn also had just six fastbreak points all game.
“They did a really good job of sitting in gaps and they held up better on the ball,” Hurley said. “They won those one-on-one battles when we tried to get downhill.”
The Wildcats had a constant double-team on Bouknight and he couldn’t do much with it. He also clearly lost his legs a bit towards the end of the game.
“They were just really, really good defensively,” Hurley said. “They made far less mistakes than we did and they made all the critical plays in the last eight minutes.”
Tyrese Martin and R.J Cole, UConn’s usual secondary-scoring options, showed flashes but struggled with consistency. Cole and Martin put up 10 and nine points, respectively, and Martin grabbed 11 boards, but both of them missed a lot of shots.
The Huskies didn’t venture into the paint enough to threaten Villanova and move them off the three-point line, registering 11 lay-ups on the afternoon. When they did go down low, freshman Adama Sanogo finished, shooting 4-6. But he picked up his fourth foul with nine minutes to go, limiting him for the end of the game.
Despite the offensive woes, UConn still held one of the best offensive teams in the nation to under 70 points, which has only happened twice this season. Senior Isaiah Whaley had a solid game defensively, blocking four shots. Freshman Andre Jackson got a highlight reel block of his own as well but didn’t do much on offense and fouled out in the final minute.
The Huskies are normally fairly good at locking down an opposing team’s main scorer, but that wasn’t necessarily the case Saturday as four different Villanova starters got to UConn for double-digit points.
Guard Collin Gillespie put up 20 with six boards in 37 minutes and hit a couple of late daggers to seal the Villanova win. He was a problem for UConn all afternoon, driving into the paint and sapping defensive pressure before kick-outs to shooters, or pushing off defenders and hunting fouls.
His supporting cast of Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Jermaine Samuels, and Justin Moore put up a total of 39 points in the win. In total, Villanova’s starters accounted for 86.8% of the Wildcats' total points.
Coming into the game, Villanova had the fifth-best turnover percentage in the nation, and that trend continued that trend. The Wildcats allowed just eight points off eight turnovers, taking away a key aspect of Hurley’s typical game-plan.
The first 20 minutes were as back and forth as it comes, with eight different lead changes. UConn fell down early but quickly rallied back in the contest as Bouknight went on a scoring binge. FOX commentator Gus Johnson called him the “Brooklyn Dodger” as it looked like he was ready to take over this game. But a fall that knocked his elbow derailed his momentum.
The Huskies and Wildcats played a nearly identical first half statistically, shooting 42.9% and 41.4% from the floor, respectively. They both shot below 30% from deep and struggled from the free-throw line.
UConn had multiple chances to win this game but shot just 8-27 from the field in the second half as Bouknight went 1-8 to finish it out. He had just one field goal in the final 20 minutes, a three-pointer with 36 seconds remaining.
Considering that this was the highest-ranked opponent UConn has been scheduled to play since returning to the Big East, this game was promising. UConn fans were understandably hyped going in. At first, it looked like Villanova had no answer for Bouknight. If the sophomore can extend his energy a bit further into the game, UConn has a much better chance to win any future matchup.
“We don’t have much of a runway to get our act together, we don’t play fantasy basketball,” Hurley said. “We’ll be better by the time the Big East Tournament comes around,” he later added.
The defense was on point, they really just need more offensive structure. The tools are all there, the carpenter just needs to make sure his joints are square.
UConn’s next game will be Tuesday, Feb. 23 away at Georgetown at 9 p.m. It will be televised on FOX.