For 20 minutes, UConn and Villanova’s Attendee.com Showdown under the Madison Square Garden lights was an ugly, but fun affair. Neither team ran anything resembling a cohesive offense, but the two former conference rivals were physical with each other and traded points and leads, obviously desperate to escape New York with a win. It was knotted at 30 at halftime and it looked to have all the makings of an instant classic.
Then it was just so ugly that it hurt to look at for too long.
In the second half, UConn (9-4) went dry from the field, the Jalen Adams that scored 20 points against Drexel on Tuesday night was nowhere to be found and Villanova (9-4) made use of 24 straight unanswered points to run away with an 81-58 win.
In UConn head coach Dan Hurley’s mind, this game was proof that UConn still has a long way to go before rejoining the ranks of college basketball’s elite.
“Huge credit to Villanova,” said Hurley. “We showed how far way we are from being there today with our performance in front of a great crowd. Wish we could have given them something than that last 17 minutes.”
UConn did manage to grab a 36-35 lead just under three minutes into the half after Villanova head coach Jay Wright earned himself a technical foul and sent Adams to the free throw line. Then Villanova scored. And then they scored again. And again.
For eight minutes and 23 seconds, UConn couldn’t hit a shot from the field while Villanova couldn’t miss. Three-point marksman Joe Cremo and Eric Paschall did most of the damage during Villanova’s 24-0 marathon. Cremo poured in nine points for the Wildcats, all from behind the arc, while the Huskies failed to get in the way of the 255-pound Paschall. The guard/forward combo was a unrelenting force all night, but no more so than during the Wildcats’ dominant run, tallying 11 of his 21 total points in those eight minutes.
As the game started to slip away and the contingent of Villanova fans started to drown out the packed crowd of UConn faithful, the Huskies started to press. As Villanova’s defense continued to suffocate, UConn forced contested shots. Shots that Hurley would like to eliminate his players from looking toward when things start to go south.
“When things start going badly you got to get more determined, you have to get more solid, you have to trust your teammates more and you have to run offense less and get more stops and set better screens,” Hurley said. “That’s how you get yourself out of bad stretches, not by making a [hesitation] 17-foot-pull up.”
According to guard Christian Vital, the responsibility is on himself and his fellow members of the backcourt to steer the ship when it’s taking on water.
“We need our older guards like Tarin [Smith], Jalen (Adams) and myself to make a play for the team,” said Vital. “Sometimes that’s just what it comes down to.”
It’s up for debate how much blame Vital should throw on himself. The junior guard was one of the few Huskies to give a full 40-minute effort, and was UConn’s leading scorer with 18 points on 7-11 shooting. When UConn emerged on the other side of Villanova’s devastating run, Vital was trying to rally his teammates, both through his words and his play, continuing to dive into the paint and hitting a few running layups and earning trips to foul line.
The same could not be said for Jalen Adams. With less than 40 seconds remaining in the first half, Adams, searching for a passing lane forced a bad pass that Villanova’s Sadiq Bey picked off. Thirty-six seconds later, with a chance to put the Huskies up at half, Adams was harassed by the Wildcat defense and had to force an off-balance shot that caught nothing but air and caused a shot-clock violation.
It was a sequence that might as well serve as a microcosm of Adam’s night as a whole. The senior guard could hardly buy a shot all night, shooting 3-13 from the field and didn’t make up for it in other ways. In fact, he was almost as bad distributing the ball as he was shooting, committing six turnovers, a new career high.
Despite the poor performance, Hurley thought Adams was approaching the game the right way but acknowledges how much the Huskies miss him when he has off-days like Saturday.
“We need him in games like this to perform at a high level so we have a chance to win,” said Hurley. “So there’s a lot of pressure on him. But I thought he had a good mindset, the ball just didn’t drop.”
The Huskies defied the odds to even be tied at the half. The Huskies were loose and carefree with the ball from jump, committing three of their 17 total turnovers in the games’ first three minutes. Their saving grace was that Villanova was even more carefree with the ball then they were, committing 19 turnovers of their own.
While the Huskies are headed home for the holidays, Hurley already knows what he’s going to put emphasis on when the team returns as it prepares for the beginning of conference play.
“Going to have to have a much shorter leash with these guys,” Hurley. “Shorter leash in terms of ‘If you’re not responsible with the ball during the course of the game, you’re going to have to come out when you don’t value it the way you should.
Guard Alterique Gilbert offered another way the team could look improve.
“For this team, our hunger has to go up.”
Bryan Lambert is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.