On a chilly night in South Philadelphia with huge stakes on the line, it was fitting that a player dawning cornrows would play a large part in his team’s winning efforts, similar to a legendary NBA guard who’d carve his own storyline in the same building.
That man was Andre Jackson, fresh off a near triple-double in his team’s dominant win over the DePaul Blue Devils. With the chance to grab a higher seed in the upcoming Big East Tournament, UConn’s veteran leader balled out in a big way with his usual all-around impact, a night that included 10 points, seven rebounds, five assists and two blocks. While it may not have started that way with a slow first half, Jackson’s impact would look much different when everything was all said and done.
Of course, while Jackson played a huge role in his team’s win that would secure the No. 4 seed in the Big East Tournament, it was a team effort and that was no small task in the road environment at the Wells Fargo Center. Players like NBA prospect Cam Whitmore were hungry to put on a show after putting up just six points in a loss at the XL Center. Now, with the opportunity to even the season series and give the Huskies some negative momentum before New York, the stage would be set.
Despite all that, the first half certainly wasn’t the best for the Wildcats. Notably, they’d have just one assist and grab zero fastbreak points. On the other hand, UConn would have 10 fastbreak points, outrebound Villanova 17-14 and dish eight assists while not being fazed much by some tough opposing defense. Most importantly, UConn would have the upper hand going into halftime, leading 32-24 and with plenty of confidence going into the second half.
The story of that first half was the battle between Alex Karaban and Whitmore. When you’ve got two Big East freshmen with tons of talent going at each other, you know it’s going to be a show and while many expected Whitmore to have the upper hand, it was Karaban who outdueled the future NBA guard. With eight points in the first half, including a buzzer-beating 3-point shot to end the half, the UConn forward was excellent and his success certainly didn’t end with that shot.
Karaban would net one of the first few buckets for the Huskies in the second half and continued to dominate, ending the night with a staggering 16 points, six rebounds and four assists. In even more unfortunate news for the home crowd, another projected NBA guard caught fire.
After putting up a five point first half performance that was unlike the standard he set for himself, Jordan Hawkins had himself a second half that resembled his best. His shooting from beyond the arc may not have been the most efficient, but his 24 points and four rebounds were tremendous for the Huskies and only added to another successful outing on the court.
Additionally, head coach Kyle Neptune’s team did little to turn the tides of a poor first half performance. They’d continue to allow the Huskies to out rebound them and let them get on the fastbreak for easy points. It also doesn’t help much when Villanova was shooting just 67% at the free throw stripe, especially when they have the nation’s highest mark in that category at 82.3%.
But UConn’s 71-59 win over the Wildcats was simply a representation of the defensive identity that coach Dan Hurley has preached all season. His squad would hold their opponent to just 36% shooting, including 25% from 3. Justin Moore’s 17 points and Whitmore’s 14 would be outliers of UConn’s defensive impact, but in the end, it did little to aid in an incredible effort on both sides of the court for the Huskies.
“There’s a reason why their defensive numbers are where they are,” said Neptune.
Now, both teams will have to move their focus to a set of games up north. It’s time for an empire state of mind with the Big East Tournament trophy sitting up for grabs.