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UConn strikes down Villanova, 71-59, in regular season finale

If there was a time to lose a game, it was now.

NCAA Basketball: Connecticut at Villanova Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Jordan Hawkins tormented the Villanova Wildcats once again, as he and the rest of the UConn Huskies heated up and pulled away for a 71-59 win to secure the regular season series sweep at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday night.

The Wildcats died by the three, shooting 2-of-10 in the first half and creating a hole that they couldn’t climb out of.

The desperation grew as the deficit did for Villanova, with some unimportant makes late in the game to finish 7-of-28 (25.0%) from long range.

Three-point shooting created separation for UConn, making four in each half including two in the first three minutes of the second half to extend the lead 42-28. The Huskies started to gain some separation towards the end of the first half, and rode the momentum to start the second, but Villanova just couldn’t get the stops it needed or match the Huskies on the scoring end.

“I thought they got into us,” Villanova head coach Kyle Neptune said. “They make you miss. There’s a reason why their defensive numbers are where they are taking away threes. They did a good job.”

A back and forth game turned into a 6-0 run from UConn to put the Huskies up 27-20 after an offensive charge by Mark Armstrong. UConn kept the momentum to go up 32-24 with a long two from Alex Karaban to close out the half.

Villanova took to the all-too-familiar free throw line to scrape back, with UConn having five players with multiple fouls entering the 10-minute mark.

After a couple made baskets from the Huskies, Whitmore intercepted the ball to drive down the court for the basketball and foul against Tristen Newton to cut the deficit to single digits, 52-43, shifting the momentum late, but it wasn’t enough.

This was a game of matchups.

Moore and Hawkins both had good nights. Moore finished with 17 points to Hawkins’ 24. Hawkins played Moore well defensively and limited the size and girth Moore has typically used to get him the one-on-one advantage.

Eric Dixon’s seven points fell short of Adama Sanogo’s nine. Such a pivotal part of the Villanova’s success in the last two weeks have been Dixon’s excellent performance from three, but he went just 1-of-3 from deep. Sanogo understood Dixon’s floor-spacing scheme, but didn’t get pushed around and stayed true to his game, staying in the paint. Sanogo also out-rebounded Dixon, 9-3.

Cam Whitmore had 14 points and five rebounds, while Andre Jackson tallied 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting, including two threes, plus seven boards, five assists, and two blocks.

All the little battles helped the Huskies win the war.

“We won one-on-one battles, which is hard to do against these guys,” UConn head coach Dan Hurley said. “They’re so physical, they have great spacing, they invert you with the bigs, Dixon with what he can do to you at three.”

The dust has settled and Villanova (6-seed) will officially be facing 11th seeded Georgetown in the first round of the Big East Tournament. UConn (5-seed) will be facing Providence (4-seed).

The road to March for Villanova now runs through Madison Square Garden, and you’d want it nowhere else. It’s championship-or-bust and with Kyle Neptune’s improvement becoming more and more clear after each game, back-to-back tournament titles are nowhere near out of reach. Both squads are ready to make their pushes.

“This is a brutal league, man,” Hurley said. “It doesn’t get enough credit. We don’t get the promotion across the board for how good the league is and how tough it is to win on the road in this league. Any game that we play from here on out, including tonight, is gonna be a hard game to win. You gotta be playing to your identity to the fullest, and you gotta play at your highest level to win any more games from here.”

As for Villanova, it’ll have to leave it all on the court.

“Our mindset all year has been a game-by-game mindset,” Neptune said. “And we gotta go out and prepare for one team. And then prepare for another team. And then hopefully prepare for another team.”