In a great defensive showing, the No. 10 Villanova Wildcats defeated the UConn Huskies 68-60 at the Finneran Pavilion.
This Big East showdown was not a particularly pretty game, as neither team’s offensive performance was spectacular. Villanova (14-3, 9-2 Big East) did not shoot well from the 3-point line, going 5-of-22, and UConn (10-6, 7-6 Big East) shot only 36% from the field.
UConn sophomore James Bouknight started off hot in the first half, making six of his first seven shots. However, he only made one of his last 10 during the remainder of the game.
A large part of Bouknight’s cooldown was due to the Wildcat’s smothering defense, as ‘Nova forced five turnovers from the sophomore and had seven steals to UConn’s one.
“We have to play offense, we have to get the ball moving better,” UConn coach Danny Hurley said. “The ball can’t just end up in James’ hands, trying to bail us out.”
According to Villanova Coach Jay Wright, a key player in that defensive lockdown was junior Brandon Slater.
“Slater was great. He’s a really good defensive player, and he did a great job on [Bouknight],” said Wright. “Even in the first half, I thought some of the shots [Bouknight] hit were on pretty good defensive possessions.”
Slater had four points and two steals coming off the bench, and his defense on Bouknight helped slow down the Huskies in the second half. The defensive-minded forward praised the whole team’s performance in the win.
“We are team-oriented on defense,” said Slater. “We try to play the ball, all five guys, so I can’t just take that credit all for myself. It’s about all our guys helping and stepping up for each other. We’re playing for each other.”
Yet, with Bouknight’s big first half, UConn only trailed by two at halftime. Due to cold shooting, the score remained close for almost the entire game, but Villanova’s Collin Gillespie and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl began to take over in the second half.
Gillespie led the scoring attack with 20 points, and Robinson-Earl had a double-double with 17 points and 11 rebounds. Gillespie’s post up game especially provided the Wildcats with some huge buckets down the stretch, and his clutch three-pointer from NBA range with 1:29 left in the second half helped put the game away.
This tough, close game was a classic Big East battle, and Coach Wright expressed his overall happiness, and personal wariness, over UConn rejoining the Big East Conference.
“[UConn] is a really good team, and [their return] is great for the conference. I’m really happy for our conference and I love the Big East,” said Wright. “But, I’m not happy for us, because they’re good. They’re going to be really good. So I’ll be honest, I’m Villanova first, conference second.”
After a loss to No. 14 Creighton, this gritty win against a UConn team lingering on the NCAA Tournament bubble was a great bounce-back for Villanova.
For the Huskies, this loss stings, as it could have been an excellent win on their March Madness resume.
“We don’t have much of a runway to get our act together, we don’t play fantasy basketball,” Hurley said. “We’ll be better by the time the Big East Tournament comes around.”
The Wildcats will move forward from this win with a rematch against a strong St. John’s squad at the Finneran Pavilion on Tuesday.