Late in the first half of Wednesday night’s contest, UConn guard Andre Jackson found himself with the ball in the corner. He made a hesitation move, created a lot of space between him and his defender, and nailed his 3-point attempt to much applause from the crowd.
And then Jackson turned around to chirp the opposing bench, warranting an immediate technical foul, his second such violation in as many contests.
“How can I stop that, I mean look at me,” Huskies head coach Dan Hurley joked postgame. “It’s hard because when you’re a player and the other team is yelling when you have the ball. When you have his makeup it’s tough, because he’s the most competitive person you’ll ever meet. Obviously, the things he does far outweigh [that negative], but he’s got to stop putting himself in that position. That was a big swing, but I don’t think I’ve heard this place louder when he hit that three from the corner.”
Despite a few costly fouls, the University of Connecticut men’s basketball team was able to get the job done on Wednesday in front of a sold-out XL Center in downtown Hartford, defeating the Villanova Wildcats by a score of 74-66.
With the victory, the Huskies extend their undefeated start to the year at 14-0 and pick up their second conference win. While this was the first win of the year for the team to not come by a double-digit margin, UConn will certainly take the result, especially against a high-caliber Big East squad.
“I think this is more realistic to conference games, especially against quality [teams],” explained Hurley. “Villanova, early in the season, they had a combination of injury to a potential [NBA Draft] lottery pick and just a brutal schedule. They’re skewed, their record coming in, but they’re a quality team.”
Riding a five-game win streak of their own heading into Wednesday, the Wildcats led a great defensive effort, locking down Preseason Big East Player of the Year Adama Sanogo. The conference’s top scorer finished with seven points in 25 minutes, getting himself into some foul trouble early on in the contest. Sanogo struggled to find his footing on offense and on the glass, ending the night with just one rebound.
Meanwhile, Villanova’s Eric Dixon was stellar down low for the Wildcats. The forward flashed his ability to stretch the floor, knocking down a 3-pointer and finishing with 18 points and eight boards. The senior particularly thrived when matched up against freshman Donovan Clingan, as UConn’s leading blocker just didn’t look as experienced as Dixon. When Sanogo was out, Dixon was able to do most of his damage offensively. Clingan improved as the game progressed, blocking a shot and scoring a couple of key buckets.
“[Clingan scoring twice in the second half] was huge. Donovan did not have a good first half. His first time playing Villanova, and you’ve got Dixon out 25 feet from the basket, playing like the late Anthony Mason off the dribble and shooting threes and you’re a 7’2” center. That’s a heck of a hard matchup. He had a couple of chances at the rim that he rushed, but that’s Donovan Clingan for you, he’s just a very vibrant, confident guy and put it behind him.”
The Wildcats also did a great job as a whole on the glass, finishing with 32 rebounds to UConn’s 29. The Huskies entered the night first in the conference in rebounding margin with 10.2, but struggled with what has been a very key part of their game.
Connecticut picked up that slack in other areas, particularly with forcing turnovers and guarding the perimeter. The team forced 18 turnovers while yielding 11, and allowed Villanova to shoot a paltry 22.7 percent from beyond the arc.
Five of those turnovers came in the second half via Hassan Diarra. The guard doesn’t typically get a lot of minutes, but he made the most of them in this one, replacing Tristen Newton, who dealt with foul trouble towards the end of the game. The Texas A&M transfer was everywhere on the court at once, snagging four steals and taking a charge, while also grabbing a very key rebound late in the contest.
“My mentality was just going to be disruptive, just pick my team up with energy and defense,” said Diarra.
Taking on the bulk of the scoring for the Huskies was guard Jordan Hawkins. The sophomore ended the night with 22 points on 6-for-14 shooting with seven rebounds. Particularly in the first half, Hawkins provided a big boost to a team that shot just 34.5 percent from the floor to start.
“He’s got the ultimate gun-slinger confidence and he knows he’s one of the best shooters in the country, and that’s his mindset. I thought that he proved himself today as a two-way player for the majority of the game, I thought he guarded well too.”
Freshman Alex Karaban gave some steady production for the Huskies as well, finishing with 15 points, including three 3-pointers, and six rebounds.
On the other end of the court, Villanova’s Caleb Daniels shined, scoring a game-high 23 points on 9-for-15 shooting. Star freshman Cam Whitmore couldn’t get a lot going off of the bench, ending the night with just six points in 23 minutes.
The entire game, the XL Center crowd was energized and loud, cheering on their Huskies. There were even some special guests in the audience, including 2004 NCAA Champion Emeka Okafor and 2011 and 2014 NCAA Champion Tyler Olander. All 15,564 in attendance brought energy to the matchup, and it certainly didn’t go unnoticed.
“It was electric. It’s always fun to play in front of UConn fans and the UConn crowd,” remarked Karaban. “For [The XL Center] to be sold out tonight really gave us more energy, really lifted us when we needed to go on a run and extend the lead. The crowd was great and it’s always awesome.”
Up next for the Huskies is a road battle with No. 22 Xavier in what is sure to be a competitive matchup. Tip-off is set for 12 p.m. on New Year’s Eve and the game will be broadcast live on FOX. While it’s easy to head into this game complacent as a whole with an undefeated record, UConn players like Hawkins still carry a chip on their shoulders heading into Saturday.
“I feel like we still have more to prove,” explained the guard. “I said we haven’t played a complete 40-minute game yet… people are going to see what we have.”