The UConn men’s basketball team went into Saturday’s game looking to knock off its longtime rival Villanova for the first time since the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
It didn’t happen, as the Huskies (10-6, 7-6 Big East) struggled offensively, particularly in the second half, and the No. 10 ranked Wildcats (14-3, 9-2 Big East) held strong for a 68-60 win — their fourth in a row over UConn.
“Credit to Villanova,” head coach Dan Hurley said after the game. “They were really, really good defensively. They made far less mistakes than we did, and they made all the critical plays in the last eight minutes of the game.”
The Huskies kept the game really close most of the way. They were only down two at halftime, and they took a couple of one-point leads early in the second half. But a seven-minute stretch without hitting a field goal allowed Villanova to mount a 10-point lead, and UConn couldn’t overcome that in the final three minutes.
UConn wasn’t very good offensively on Saturday. Some of that had to do with Villanova’s good defense and forcing the ball out of James Bouknight’s hands, but a lot of it was just not getting good shots and not hitting the shots they got. The Huskies shot just 36.4% for the game — 25.9% from three — and 29.6% in the second half.
“They were switching a lot, they were obviously really loading up to James,” Hurley said. “I think the lesson learned for us today is that we have to play offense. We’ve got to get the ball moving better. The ball just can’t end up in James’ hands just trying to bail us out. I think collectively as a team, we’ve got to have a better approach.”
Bouknight had a solid game, scoring 21 points along with 10 rebounds, but most of that damage was done early. He was held to just seven points in the second half on just 1-for-8 shooting from the field. Hurley said Bouknight is still working himself back into game shape, and he really just got tired at the end.
“James got off to a blistering start, and [Villanova] didn’t change their defensive principles,” Hurley said. “His conditioning got him, and then when he got tired, his decision making got away from him.”
Bouknight agreed that he got tired, but he wouldn’t use it as an excuse. He also said that he didn’t think his cardio played a big factor, but rather he just got extremely frustrated.
“I think I did a bad job with my body language today, but that’s just because I hold myself to such a high standard,” Bouknight said. “When things don’t go the way I want them to, sometimes it’s hard for me to hold it in.”
Aside from Bouknight, nobody else could find more than sporadic success on offense. R.J. Cole had the next highest point total with 10, followed by Tyrese Martin with nine. The Huskies just had nothing to counter what the Wildcats were able to bring defensively.
On offense, Collin Gillespie scored 20 points for the Wildcats on 8-for-15 shooting, including a couple of huge 3-pointers to put the game away down the stretch. He was clearly the best player on the court for most of the game on Saturday. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl added 17 points and 11 rebounds in a very impressive performance. But the Huskies actually played really well on defense overall, holding a team that averages 78 points per game to only 68 points. But since they only put up 60 points themselves, it didn’t really matter.
“If we would have played better offensively, we would have had a really good chance down the stretch to win the game,” Hurley said.
The Huskies have four games left in the regular season and probably have to win all of them, plus a game or two in the Big East Tournament to secure a bid to March Madness. They’re going to have to figure out how to succeed offensively when the opponent is doing a good job limiting Bouknight. More guys have to be able to consistently make shots. That’s what separates a top-10 team like Villanova from a team like UConn, who is clearly not at that level right now.
However, Hurley believes that they will be able to get to that level soon.
“We’re confident,” Hurley said. “We’ve got a chance to put something together down the stretch here. We don’t have a lot of time and we don’t have much of a safety net. We’ve got to win down the stretch here … We’ll be better by the time the Big East Tournament rolls around, and hopefully we get to play [Villanova] again.”
Next up for the Huskies is Georgetown on Tuesday at 9 p.m. in Washington D.C.