The No. 12-ranked Villanova Wildcats picked up a crucial and appropriately tough Big East win against the No. 17 UConn Huskies, 85-74, at the Wells Fargo Center. The contest was eye-grabbing from start to finish, many moments being scary.
“You get a lead in a Big East game, you know no one in his league is going to quit,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “They’re going to keep coming at you, and they did. We weathered the storm. I was proud of our guys.”
Collin Gillespie went down off a defensive closeout following a three-point attempt from UConn. He was seen on his knees hugging the ground - he struggled to get up and needed assistance from personnel on the Villanova bench. He was seen exiting through the tunnel, remaining there for roughly 10 minutes. He then briefly came back to the bench, only to exit again just moments later.
There was tension following the incident leading to an encounter between Caleb Daniels and a handful of UConn players. It was confirmed that the pain was in his right ankle, and he will be getting an x-ray on Sunday.
“We just wanted to be there for our brother,” Daniels said. “We knew we still had a ton of game left, but we just wanted to show him we had his back. We took it one possession at a time, and we stuck together.”
But it wasn’t all bad.
Eric Dixon set a new career-high 24 points to go along with 12 rebounds, a microcosm of the sensational season he’s been having for the ‘Cats. The redshirt sophomore continues to have impressive games night after night when it matters most. He used his frame to push around the tall and athletic UConn frontcourt.
“Last year, there were a lot of days where Jeremiah Robinson-Earl couldn’t deal with him,” Wright said of Dixon. “He was still in that learning process, but we saw it last year. We’re just continuing to see it this year. He’s got so much more in him, it’s amazing. … And he’s smart enough to know it doesn’t happen overnight, you just have to keep working at it.”
From the beginning, UConn demonstrated a clear edge in pure athletic ability. Led by guard RJ Cole who had 25 points, the Huskies tried to swing the pace of the game in favor of the Huskies early by running the floor with agility and spending the opening minutes of the game in a press formation.
However, Villanova countered from the get-go by setting a slower pace, being more tough and physical on both ends – 50/50 balls went their way, they created very tight lanes for UConn to drive through, causing them to make uncomfortable passes to the outside. The physical nature of Villanova stayed firm on the offensive side as well, leading to UConn committing five fouls in the first seven minutes of the game - all five starters for UConn exited the first half with at least one personal foul.
Last season’s co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year, Isaiah Whaley, as well as Adama Sanogo were also in foul trouble. While it was a big day for Dixon inside, the ‘Cats also feasted in the paint over, outscoring UConn, 46-30. It was a switch up, with Villanova powering its way in the post, rather than shooting from the three-point line. The ‘Cats attempted just 11 three-pointers for the entire game.
“We have three-point shooters and we like to shoot threes, but they were so aggressive on the perimeter,” Wright said. “They’re great at defending the three, and that did open it up for Eric one-on-one inside and opened it up for some driving opportunities.”
The absence of Justin Moore did not faze his teammates, as multiple teammates stepped up in his place. Caleb Daniels, who took Moore’s place in the starting lineup, finished with 16 points and had multiple key defensive plays in the early second half that led to scores to put the contest out of reach for UConn.
Gillespie had 19 points before exiting the game. Slater chipped in 11 points.
Chris Arcidiacono also pitched in offensively with nine points. In a season where depth has been a persistent issue, a performance like this is very encouraging. UConn attempted one last push to rally back into the game, but the ‘Cats held onto their comfortable lead until the final buzzer.
“Chris Arch was great,” Coach Wright said. “Jordan Longino and Brian, they gave us just enough minutes to keep guys fresh. I thought Caleb did a great job handling the ball. He can play any position, the three or the two, today he had to play the one a little. We’re all really proud of him.”
There might be more Arcidiacono minutes on the way.
“Definitely,” Wright said when asked if he would start Arcidiacono in place of Gillespie on Tuesday. “I was proud as hell of him. I thought he did a good job of spreading the ball out.”
Gillespie will receive an X-Ray tomorrow. Coach Wright said that there is hope Moore will be able to play Tuesday.
With the win, Villanova improves to 17-6 overall and 10-3 in Big East play. The ‘Cats return to action on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden for a game against St. John’s. Tip-off is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. ET.