With 8.6 seconds to go in the contest, down five points, UConn guard Andre Jackson shot up a three-pointer that took a couple bounces before finally dropping. For a moment, it seemed like the Huskies could mount another under a minute, two-possession comeback, reminiscent of overcoming the four-point deficit they had just three weeks prior, also against Villanova.
A double-team trap on the inbound receiver was a great start. Him finding an open man, who found Big East Player of the Year Collin Gillespie? Not so much. At that point, 5.8 seconds had been shaved off the clock, and even though Gillespie missed his second, leaving the door open to a comeback attempt, a Tyrese Martin half-court shot was both late and off the mark.
It wasn’t in the cards. In the rubber match between UConn and Villanova, it was the Wildcats that came out on top in a nailbiter on Friday night, 63-60. With the win, Villanova advances to the Big East Championship on Saturday.
“We’re playing to get to the championship game tonight, so we had no other option but to leave everything out there. And I feel like we did that and we just came up short,” Martin said.
Words have never rang more true, as the Huskies showed incredible fight through and through. Martin arguably led the pack in that regard, dropping a team-high 19 points on 7-for-17 shooting alongside seven rebounds. The senior was everywhere, keeping the Villanova defenders on their toes with some putback scores down low, while also stretching the floor with four three-pointers.
His foil in this contest was Jermaine Samuels, who went off for a game-high 21 points, well above his 10 points per game conference average. He grabbed 12 boards on Friday, blocked a shot and added a steal. For a guy who was a late addition to yesterday’s game against St. John’s because of back spasms, Samuels sure looked comfortable out there.
One of the more impressive aspects of Villanova’s victory was the ability of the role players to step up in the face of adversity. Another key performance for the Wildcats came from Brandon Slater, who put up a clean 15 points on 5-for-8 shooting, and he perhaps had the play of the night with around 4:30 to go in the game. A driving Martin looked to shift some momentum towards the Huskies, down seven at the time, with a monstrous dunk. Slater came in with the clean block, sending himself to the ground in the process.
Samuels and Slater rank fifth and sixth on the team in terms of points per game in the Big East, yet they combined for 36 points on Friday. How about the four guys above them on that list in Gillespie, Justin Moore, Eric Dixon and Caleb Daniels? They added just 22 points total in the win.
“If you would have said to me just going into the game that we would hold Gillespie to five on only five shot attempts, Moore to six points on 3-for-9 shooting and Daniels 2-for-10 … I would have said, how many did we win by?” head coach Dan Hurley stated. “They stepped up tonight, in Slater and Samuels, and won that game.”
There’s a reason that the Wildcats are still the team to beat, despite Providence winning the regular season title. Their depth and will to fight was put on full display on Friday night, and likely the better team came out on top. Still, that shouldn’t take away from the toughness and resilience shown from the Huskies, who kept themselves in the game despite trailing for over 26 minutes of play.
Look at the rebounding numbers as an example. In the other two matchups this year, UConn, at the top of the conference in rebounds per game, allowed more boards to Villanova, who sits at the bottom of the list. In this contest, however, they were able to dominate on the glass, grabbing 40 rebounds while allowing only 30.
“We rarely lose when we outrebound teams,” said Martin. “We stuck to our identity tonight. We did everything we had to do, but we just came up short.”
It wasn’t just the “big three,” the top three scorers on the team in Martin, Sanogo and RJ Cole that were making an impact. Isaiah Whaley, despite not having a point to his name, played some incredible defense all night long. He blocked a dunk early in the game that got the UConn fans at Madison Square Garden loud and continued to be a force late in the game, blocking shots on back-to-back Villanova possessions. Andre Jackson followed up his strong showing on Thursday with a big game on Friday, hustling everywhere on the court and providing tons of pressure on the Wildcats.
“It was one of those games where I kind of felt like who had the ball last. We never felt like we had them under control, you know?” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said postgame.
For all the good that UConn did throughout the matchup, there were a few glaring negatives. Some of Connecticut’s struggles came from big man Adama Sanogo, as the All-Big East First Teamer had a hard time getting things going after a strong first half. The sophomore’s footwork was spectacular all game, giving himself great position to knock down his typical post shots despite plenty of pressure from the staunch Villanova defense. It just wasn’t his night offensively, as he ended the game just 6-for-15 for 15 points with 13 rebounds and two turnovers. Furthermore, he went a paltry 3-for-7 from the charity stripe. Despite this, Hurley didn’t seem concerned about Sanogo’s performance.
“I don’t want to micromanage a guy that was a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar [Finalist], top five center in the country, first team all-conference. This guy has carried us. In large part, we would be nowhere where we are without Adama Sanogo coming into our program,” Hurley said.
Next up for the Huskies is the NCAA Tournament, where they are projected to be a No. 5 seed, according to TeamRankings.com. Selection Sunday is this Sunday, and UConn will be looking to make a deep run in the Big Dance. They lost this contest but proved that they are among the elite teams in the country, going toe-to-toe with powerhouse Villanova in back-to-back games.
“We’re real confident. We’re not going to let it break us,” said Martin. “We’re going to go back and learn from it, see what we can get better at, knowing that there’s teams like tonight we’ll have to play in March.”