UConn men’s basketball’s Big East season has ended in the semifinals for the second consecutive season, as the Huskies fell in a nailbiter to Villanova, 63-60.
“[Villanova] makes so few mistakes, and we made a few too many,” head coach Dan Hurley said postgame.
Tyrese Martin led the way for UConn with 19 points, including a 4-8 performance from beyond the arc. He was joined in double-figures by Adama Sanogo, who had 13 points and 15 rebounds, RJ Cole (11 points) and Andre Jackson (10 points).
This was the type of game UConn had been waiting to play since announcing its return to the Big East in June 2020. Two AP Top 20 teams in the second half of the semifnal doubleheader before a packed Madison Square Garden. The crowd knew the magnitude of such an event and so did the players and coaches.
“Tonight was different than last night. It was an extra level of electricity in the building,” Hurley said. “I think playing in this tournament experience is going to make us a lot more comfortable in the win-or-go-home next week.”
UConn’s offense looked much better on Friday than it did on Thursday, with better sets and more makes. The Huskies shot 46 percent from the field in the first 20 minutes, including 5-11 from 3-point range. UConn also only had four turnovers, including a charge on Cole with just 1.9 seconds left in the half, and had an assist on eight of their 13 makes.
Sanogo was in the mix, with seven points on 3-6 shooting, while Cole, Jackson, Tyrese Martin and Tyler Polley each converted from beyond the arc, including two from Martin.
However, despite a much-improved offense, Villanova was on fire from 3-point range. The Wildcats were moving the ball around well to create open looks. Already a strong-shooting bunch, it took Jay Wright’s team 12 minutes to make a 2-point shot, which was one of three that they made in the first 20 minutes. By contrast, Villanova was 8-19 from beyond the arc, with a trio from Jermaine Samuels.
“This is a formidable team. Villanova is outstanding. They’re very, very hard to beat,” Hurley said. “And again, that’s the type of team that we’ll face if we’re fortunate enough to advance in the NCAA Tournament, that’s the type of team you’re probably playing in a Sweet 16.”
This kept the game close, featuring 13 lead changes and six ties, and the largest lead was just five.
Hurley adjusted in the second half with stronger defense on the perimeter, but it was met by more inside shots for the Wildcats. While Villanova cooled down from 3-point range, the lane was more open, allowing Villanova to continue to score easy baskets.
The high seed took a one-point advantage into the second half and largely held it, stretching its advantage as large as eight with 10:22 to go, but a quick spurt brought the Huskies back to within three, including a Martin and-one, but they could not get enough stops on the other end to erase Villanova’s advantage through the middle stages of the second half.
UConn has had well-documented issues with 2-point shots, ranked No. 242 in the country on shots from inside the arc. This weakness reared its head in the second half, as Sanogo struggled with the pressure he faced, while his team combined to hit 6-19 of its inside shots, including 7-17 on layups on the game.
This was encapsulated after a Villanova turnover with approximately 2:30 to go. Jackson waited for Sanogo and made a contested lob, rather than taking the ball all the way himself and the ball went out of bounds to the Huskies. After Whaley missed a midrange jumper from the right side, Sanogo tried to tip the ball in twice, but missed both times and ended up with a held ball, with the arrow belonging to the Wildcats. Had a shot gone in, the deficit would have been three.
The Huskies would get it as close as two in the final seconds, but they were not able to complete the comeback. Instead, UConn will await its seeding and destination for the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament, which will be announced on Sunday at 6:00 p.m.