The Villanova Wildcats traveled to the XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut on Saturday to take on the UConn Huskies, a team they hadn’t beaten on the road since 2007. As ‘Nova’s season began its home stretch, the ‘Cats were in desperate need of a quality road victory to add to their NCAA Tournament resume, often a requirement in earning an at-large bid to the Big Dance. Before the 2012-13 season began, the NCAA imposed a one-year postseason ban on the University of Connecticut’s men’s basketball team as a result of the program’s low Academic Progress Rate scores, an embarrassing indictment for one of the country’s most prolific basketball programs. Despite that punishment, former Philadelphia 76er Kevin Ollie, a long-time assistant under former head coach Jim Calhoun, has done a remarkable job keeping his team motivated in his first year at the helm for the Huskies. His squad came into the day ranked 21st in RPI, and had just beaten 6th-ranked Syracuse at home on Wednesday. The potential ramifications to Villanova’s tournament hopes had they escaped Hartford with a victory were huge.
“If we’re going to have a chance to play in the postseason, this is going to be important,” head coach Jay Wright said. ”But most important for us is our psyche. You’ve got to win on the road against good teams. You can talk about it all you want, but we’ve got to go do it. That’s why I’m really excited about this. If I didn’t have so much respect for [Connecticut], it wouldn’t be such a good win. But I think they’re a really good team.”
The game didn’t start out as planned for the Wildcats (16-10 overall, 7-6 Big East), as they missed 4 of their first 5 attempts from the floor, leading to an early 6-2 advantage for UConn (17-7, 7-5). The Huskies’ stellar guard tandem of Junior Shabazz Napier and Sophomore Ryan Boatright entered the game averaging close to 33 points combined per contest. Tremendous team defense helped the ‘Cats hold the duo to just 6 points, including 3 for 15 from the field, and forced them into 10 turnovers.
Napier picked up his second foul of the game and had to take a seat on the bench after just three minutes had elapsed, resulting in a seven-minute UConn scoring drought that allowed the Wildcats to go on an 11-0 run, giving them a 13-6 lead. The Huskies responded, however, by going on a 10-1 spurt of their own, giving them a 16-14 lead with 8 minutes remaining in the first half. The two sides traded baskets for the remainder of the opening period, resulting in a 33-30 UConn advantage at the break.
Villanova’s Ryan Arcidiacono single-handedly kept the ‘Cats in the game, finishing his torrid first half with 17 points, including 3 of 6 from three-point range. DeAndre Daniels had 9 points to lead UConn heading into the locker room. The Wildcats shot just 32% from the floor compared to the Huskies’ 52%, however ‘Nova held an 18-11 rebounding advantage, including an 8-0 offensive rebounding edge, which led to 7 second-chance points.
With just over 14 minutes remaining in the second half, Arcidiacono sparked an 11-0 run for Villanova after draining a three-pointer to answer a dunk by UConn’s Niels Giffey, which had given the Huskies their largest lead of the game, 43-36. On the following possession, ‘Nova’s James Bell stole the ball away from Boatright at half-court and made a pass to Tony Chennault for the easy layup. The highlight of the run occurred on a half-court lob from Arcidiacono to a streaking James Bell for an alley-oop slam that got the ‘Nova bench on their feet and deflating whatever momentum UConn had left in XL Arena. With 9 minutes, 35 seconds remaining in the game, Villanova held a 52-45 lead.
The Huskies drew to within two, but Bell, who scored all 11 of his points in the second half and has come up big all year in crunch-time, drained two consecutive threes for some breathing room, and hit a clinching third three-ball to make it 67-57 with just 1:36 left. Villanova had picked up their quality road win, their best of the season by far, ending with a final score of 70-61.
The Wildcats dominated UConn on the glass, finishing with a 41-25 rebounding advantage, including a 20-5 edge at the offensive end, leading to 20 second-chance points, their most in a Big East game this season. Mouphtaou Yarou contributed 16 of those boards to go along with 11 points, recording his 5th double-double of the season, while JayVaughn Pinkston added 14 points and 9 rebounds. Ryan Arcidiacono finished one of his best games of his young collegiate career with 25 points and 2 assists, including going 5 for 8 from beyond the arc.
UConn Freshman Omar Calhoun led the way for the Huskies with 16 points and 6 rebounds, including 9 for 9 from the free-throw line. Shabazz Napier finished with 10 assists and just 2 points, while DeAndre Daniels added 13 points and 4 rebounds. The Wildcats forced Ryan Boatright into one of his worst games of his career, as he ended up with 4 points on 2 of 7 shooting.
After their disappointing loss on the road at Cincinnati last week, the Villanova Wildcats responded in a big way on Saturday, a tribute to the team’s toughness and resiliency, despite their youth. With the win, they keep their NCAA Tournament hopes very much alive. The ‘Cats return home to the Pavilion on Monday night to take on the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, a team who just lost their leading scorer over the weekend to a broken leg, and has a 4-9 record in the Big East. It’s an absolute must-win game for ‘Nova as they attempt to keep their positive momentum going. Tip-off is scheduled for 9:00 PM and can be seen on ESPNU.Tags: Big 5, James Bell, Jay Wright, NCAA, Ryan Arcidiacono, Villanova, win