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No. 1 Villanova runs UConn off XL Center floor

POSTED January 20, 2018
BY Patrick Tiscia
Twitter: @PatrickTiscia

HARTFORD – For the first time in nearly four years on Saturday, UConn took the floor against its former Big East rival in Villanova.

A quick reminder of that last game, which UConn won in the NCAA Tournament en route to its fourth national championship, was in the first row of the student section as one of the fans stood next to the basket holding a large cardboard cutout of Shabazz Napier’s head.

Villanova, the No. 1 ranked team in the country, then gave a quick reminder of how far each of the programs has gone since then – and in drastically different directions. The Wildcats, despite not shooting up to their usual standard, mauled UConn on the glass in the first half and led by 21 at halftime. They eventually expanded it to a 31-point advantage and coasted to an 81-61 victory that sparked boos and an early exit from most of the sold-out crowd (15,564) at the XL Center.

Villanova (18-1), clearly, has a great shot at its second national title in three years. UConn (10-9), on the other hand, faces an uphill climb to an NIT berth. What a difference four years makes.

“Shooting the ball, passing the ball, sharing the ball – if there’s one team you want to emulate, it’s them,” said UConn coach Kevin Ollie, whose team has lost five games by 20 or more points. “They’re No. 1 for a reason.”

Emulation was not a trait seen around Storrs from 1990-2014. The Huskies were the team most programs wanted to be. Now, many teams circle UConn as a guaranteed win on their schedule. Villanova, included.

The Wildcats got every shot they wanted in the first half, but struggled to make them, connecting on 36 percent of their attempts, including 7-of-21 from three. But, like any championship-caliber team, they found a way. That way was through the offense glass, as they bullied their way to 12-3 difference. On multiple occasions, Villanova players literally ripped the ball out of the hands of would-be UConn rebounders.

Led by All-American candidate Jalen Brunson, Villanova shot 46 percent in the second half, ran up their lead to 72-43 at one point, and toyed with the Huskies in every way possible. Brunson made all five of his shots after halftime and finished with 23 points and five three-pointers. Donte DiVincenzo also hit five threes and had 17 points. Only twice this season has a UConn player made at least five three-pointers in a game (Christian Vital both times).

Omari Spellman added nine points, 12 rebounds, and had a vicious dunk over David Onuorah in traffic.

Villanova has adapted to the evolution of today’s game, which highlights three-point shooting, spacing and ball movement, far better than UConn has.

The Huskies were once again led by Jalen Adams, who scored 19 points and played all 40 minutes. With Alterique Gilbert out for the season and miniscule guard depth on the bench, Adams has played at least 35 minutes in 15 straight games. Putting so much on one’s shoulders is no recipe for success.

When asked about the incredibly heavy workload, Adams smiled, paused, and cordially answered, “I wouldn’t say it’s hard. I’m doing the best I could do. I’m going to play and give everything I can on the court until I have nothing left. I love being out there with my teammates.”

Freshman Josh Carlton had a decent game with 13 points and nine rebounds. Terry Larrier played through a facial fracture and wore a protective mask, but struggled, missing 11 of his 14 shots and finished with only six points. He will have surgery this week and will miss at least Thursday’s home game versus SMU.

On the surface, losing to the No. 1 ranked team in the country is nothing to be ashamed of. But how it happened, combined with the current state of the program, is a dark cloud that is looming over UConn. It’s hard to believe the boos heard on Saturday were for the players only. Ollie’s job status is constant topic amongst the fan base, but unless someone steps up with a large check to help pay for his buyout (approximately $8-10 million), he is staying put for at least another year.

“I’m not going to give in,” Ollie said. “I’m going to keep fighting each and every day. Our coaching staff is fighting and our players are getting better. We’ve got to fight through adversity. It’s not going to last.”

He then added an interesting analogy.

“When you feel the ship is sinking, the rats jump off first, and the scavengers jump off first. We’re not scavengers, we’re not rats. We’re staying right on the damn boat.”

Villanova coach Jay Wright, who improved to 6-12 lifetime against the Huskies, was respectful when asked about the UConn program and also reminisced about the glory days of the rivalry.

Those days, though, are long gone. Villanova is currently an annual NCAA title contender and UConn is struggling to stay afloat. Saturday’s game showed us that trend is not likely to change anytime soon.

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