The UConn men’s basketball team has not beaten a ranked opponent on the road in six years.
It also hasn’t beaten Villanova in six years.
Both of those streaks will remain for the time being after UConn failed to close out the No. 14 Wildcats down the stretch in a 61-55 loss at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
After falling to Wichita State by three in double overtime a week ago, Saturday’s loss fell into UConn’s “excruciating losses” category, alongside the double-overtime, one-point loss to a ranked Xavier team and a three-point loss to Indiana at Madison Square Garden.
“It’s a frustrated locker room,” head coach Dan Hurley told the media, as reported by the New Haven Register’s Dave Borges, “because that game was on the table for us.”
In a game with seven different lead changes, the Huskies (10-7, 1-3 The American) found themselves ahead by six in the second half when Brendan Adams capped off a 20-8 run with a layup. Villanova, who had little success scoring against UConn’s interior defense, was forced to shoot from distance, making 11-of-23 three-pointer attempts. The Wildcats shot 34.5% from three entering the game.
UConn seemed to be the opposite of the Wildcats, out-scoring ‘Nova in the paint 36-12 and winning the rebound battle 35-23, but shot just 2-of-15 from beyond the arc.
With the Huskies down a point with under a minute to play, Alterique Gilbert forced a no-look pass through traffic, intending to find Akok Akok down low. Instead it landed in the hands of the Wildcats, turnover No. 17 on the day for UConn, giving Jermain Samuels the stage to nail a dagger of a three-pointer on the other end with 31 seconds to play.
“Bad decision. I just hesitated,” Gilbert said on the play, as reported by the Journal Inquirer’s Neill Ostrout. “Made a bad play. You live and learn.”
Gilbert finished with 12 points and five assists, while Christian Vital had team highs in points (13) and rebounds (8). The senior backcourt duo, however, committed nine turnovers. Josh Carlton was the beneficiary of UConn’s in-paint production, scoring 12 points of 6-of-9 shooting with six rebounds and two blocks before he fouled out late.
Carlton scored the first four points of the game for the Huskies before Akok hit a 3-pointer from the wing to give UConn a 11-4 lead at the 15:43 mark.
After moving the ball well and utilizing Carlton’s size down low early, the Huskies’ offense went stagnant, scoring just 10 points the remainder of the half.
The Wildcats (14-3, 4-1 Big East) found their stride from deep, going 6-for-11 in the half, including a stretch of four straight. While the Huskies’ four blocks proved to be a deterrent from scoring inside, the ‘Nova marksmen built a 19-15 lead with 10:04 before halftime.
Akok tied the game at 21 a few moments later on a second-chance effort, the last points of the half for UConn. The Wildcats would hit a pair of threes, one from Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and the other by Bryan Antoine, over the final 4:08 to give Villanova a 27-21 halftime lead.
“We had them on their heels the whole game,” Akok said, as reported by the Hartford Courant’s Dom Amore, who finished with seven points, four rebounds and three blocks. “As the games go forward, we’re going to start earning respect for this program.”
UConn, thanks to a quick spurt from Gilbert, Vital and Carlton, tied the game at 27 just three minutes into the second half.
Then Samuels answered with a three.
UConn scored two more buckets.
Then Samules hit another three. He finished with 19 points (4-of-6 3-pointers), five rebounds and three steals.
Then 10-straight points from Collin Gillespie saw the Huskies’ four-point advantage transform into a 43-43 contest with 7:52 to play.
“I thought we did a really good job of taking away the 3-point shooters that we didn’t want taking threes,” Hurley said, as reported by Amore. “Based on the numbers, based on their strengths, you’ve got to pick your poison because where we’re at right now, we can’t take everything away.”
Samuels put his team ahead permanently when he converted an and-1 opportunity with 2:58 to go, nullifying Vital’s made three from two minutes prior.
Vital followed Gilbert’s late-game miscue with a bucket to keep the Huskies’ hopes alive, if only for a moment. Robinson-Earl closed the game with four-consecutive made free throws, bringing the Wildcats’ total to 12-of-16 on the day. UConn went 3-of-3 from the stripe, all coming on one trip by James Bouknight.
Though disappointed, the Huskies are not discouraged following their second tough loss in a seven-day span.
“People better get us now,” Hurley said, as reported by Ostrout, “because it’s coming.”
UConn’s next opportunity comes on a Thursday night, Jan. 23, road bout with Houston. The Huskies return home the following Sunday (Jan. 26) to host Tulsa at the XL Center.