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Villanova’s upset bid falls short against No. 1 UConn, 66-65

Despite getting down in an early double-digit hole, Villanova fought back but fell short in its upset bid against No. 1 UConn.

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

Despite falling into an early hole, Villanova had the No. 1-ranked UConn Huskies on upset alert — until the Huskies were able to avoid the scare with a couple timely shots late and some untimely calls on the ‘Cats resulted in a 66-65 loss in a charged up Wells Fargo Center on Saturday night.

“Hats off to UConn — they came out and set the tone for the game, especially in the first couple of minutes,” Villanova coach Kyle Neptune said in his opening remarks after the game. “They played hard throughout, made timely shots, got some stops where they needed to get stops. I thought they did a great job.”

For the first five minutes of the game, the Huskies managed an 11-0 run over the ‘Cats. According to Neptune, this was the kiss of death for ‘Nova because UConn was able to gain such an advantage out of the gate and another slow start for the ‘Cats saw them having to play catch-up from the start.

“This is the Big East,” Neptune said. “You’re going against really good teams, really good coaches, and really talented players. Teams are gonna throw blows at you. You either respond or you don’t.”

However, Justin Moore managed to completely turn the first half around around 10 minutes in, scoring a total of 9 points in a series of back-to-back shots to help the ‘Cats chip away at the early deficit.

“We just kept saying attitude, attitude, and we just fought back,” Villanova guard T.J. Bamba said. “We just learn from it and take that lesson going into the next game.”

By the end of the first half, it was the start of a back-and-forth game. UConn held a 29-24 lead going into the break after a low-scoring start.

Villanova’s energy and momentum appeared to pick up in the second half, with Justin Moore and Mark Armstrong each scoring within the first two minutes.

The Wildcats took a 42-38 lead after Tyler Burton drilled a three-pointer with 13:39 remaining in the game, but UConn quickly responded with a 13-0 run.

Villanova managed to battle back, but would never regain the lead. It was a one-possession game all throughout the final five minutes, but whenever Villanova seemed to be close, UConn had a response.

Justin Moore was called for two offensive hooking fouls in the last 1:30 of action, a momentum killer for the ‘Cats.

“It’s null and void, it doesn’t matter what I think about it,” Neptune said of the late-game hooking calls. “This is basketball. They make calls, it is what it is. Refs do a great job, they have a tough job. We’re never going to complain about refs, calls or anything like that. I thought there were maybe 20 things we could have done better throughout the game.”

“Like coach said, nothing about calls, just need to look in the mirror and see what I can do better,” Moore added. “Just make a better play.”

It was a tense final minute of the game, until Tristen Newton made the game-sealing free throws with four seconds left.

Moore led the ‘Cats with 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting, with five boards. Bamba also had 15 points. Tyler Burton, Mark Armstrong and Eric Dixon each had nine points apiece.

For UConn, Tristen Newton tallied a game-high 25 points, with six rebounds and three assists. Cam Spencer chipped in 14 points in the winning effort. Alex Karaban added 10 points.

With the loss, Villanova falls to 11-7 overall and 4-3 in Big East play.

The Wildcats next face off against the St. John’s Red Storm at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, January 24, 8:30 PM EST.