HARTFORD – A miracle was not in the cards Saturday afternoon in Connecticut.
In front of a sold-out crowd of 15,564 UConn fans desperate for something to cheer about, the Huskies fell 81-61 to No. 1 Villanova at the XL Center in a game that was never close.
Jalen Brunson had 23 points to lead Jay Wright’s Wildcats, who led by as many as 31 points and looked every bit like the best team in the country. Jalen Adams had 19 points on 7-for-20 shooting for Kevin Ollie’s Huskies.
“They’re the No. 1 team for a reason. Any time we made a mistake they made us pay for it,” Ollie said after the game. “We’re young and we’ll continue to perform and try to get better.”
It took Villanova a couple of minutes to find their shooting rhythm, but once they did, UConn was quickly buried. The game was decided by a 21-4 run from the Wildcats to close the second half, as the Huskies went ice cold and put the XL Center to sleep, except for when it awoke to vocalize its discontent for the officials.
“You don’t like losing by that much. We just have to do a better job defensively,” Adams said. “In the games that we do defense it’s close and we’re right there, either we win the game or it’s close. It comes down to defense and just playing hard.”
The afternoon started with a surprise, as UConn’s Terry Larrier played despite a fractured sinus that he will receive surgery for next week, keeping him out for seven to 10 days. Larrier wore a black face mask in warmups, ditched it for the pre-game layup line but brought it back for the game itself.
“I’m just proud, it was a 50/50 chance that he played. He told us right before the game that he was going to play and try it. Doctors cleared him, he will have surgery this week, but the doctors cleared him to go out and play with his mask. Of course, I imagined it bothered him, but I was so proud he didn’t use that as an excuse and went out there and played,” Ollie said of Larrier’s decision to lace them up.
Right from the first minute, however, Larrier didn’t look comfortable. He did give UConn their only lead with a finish in the opening minute, but his jumper was off (0-for-6 from 3-point range) and his dribbling was even shakier than usual.
Villanova established the tone early by grabbing one offensive rebound after another, prolonging possessions that featured decent defensive rotations from UConn. Ollie went with the zone look despite the Wildcats’ 42 percent mark from deep entering the game.
“I think early in the game we gave them several opportunities. One possession they probably got like four or five shots. We just have to do a better job rebounding, I think that was the main thing,” Adams said. “They outrebounded us by like 16, so when you give a good team like so many opportunities it’s hard to stop them once they get going.”
Villanova quickly got going. Eventually, threes from Brunson and Donte DiVincenzo began to fall, while the Wildcats played their typically tight defense on the other end. UConn only turned the ball over 10 times, but that led to some easy buckets going the other way.
Then that 21-4 run happened, sucking all life out of the building and making it very clear to a national viewing audience on CBS why Villanova is ranked first in the country.
At halftime, UConn trailed by 21 points. They enjoyed a 6-0 spurt early in the second half, bringing specks of life back into the building, but then the Wildcats took the wheel.
With 12:12 remaining in the game, Villanova led by 29 points. Since Jim Calhoun was hired by UConn in 1986, the Huskies’ largest home loss was 28 points to Georgetown in Calhoun’s first season.
The final deficit was not that large. Late buckets from Christian Vital (15 points) and Josh Carlton cut the final deficit down to just 20 points. Carlton, a freshman forward, had another nice effort, posting 13 points and nine rebounds while providing a presence in the paint.
“I’m getting way more comfortable. Coaches said I’m not a freshman anymore so I’m just trying to play like I’m not a freshman. I’m just trying to play like I’m supposed to help the team,” Carlton said.
For UConn, it was their fifth 20-point loss of the season. The last time the program lost five games by 20 or more points was the 1968-69 season. But Ollie won’t put his head down and continues to believe in the team turning it around, somewhere and somehow.
“Of course, I do not want to be 10-9. But at the end of the day, I know this is not going to last. This is temporary. We’re going to keep fighting, keep fighting on the recruiting trail, getting UConn players in here, meshing with the players we do have in here. We’re going to keep better. But, at the same token, we have to fight, we have to play with pride,” Ollie said. “In our league, [our talent level] is fine.”