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Another failed upset bid by UConn

POSTED January 18, 2020
BY Patrick Tiscia
Twitter: @PatrickTiscia


PHILADELPHIA – Dan Hurley often points out the “excruciating” losses his team is bound to suffer on its rebuilding path. They certainly have dealt with their fair share.

There was the double overtime loss to No. 18 Xavier, a game UConn should have won. At Madision Square Garden, they played, arguably, their best stretch of basketball in years early in the first half against Indiana, but ultimately crumbled in a three-point loss. Last week, bedlam ensued at the XL Center when they came back from nine points down with a minute left to force overtime versus No. 23 Wichita State. It wasn’t enough, though, as the Shockers escaped Hartford with a double overtime win.

One thing you have to give Hurley’s team credit for is their resolve. They’ve been through a lot already this season and could have easily caved. They haven’t.

On Saturday, here they were, yet again, with a chance to pick up a signature win, leading No. 14 Villanova by two with only three minutes left at the Wells Fargo Center. But you know the drill by now.

Jermaine Samuels’ three-point play put the Wildcats ahead and a combination of poor outside shooting, an ill-advised turnover by Alterique Gilbert and clutch Villanova shooting did the Huskies in. Villanova prevailed, 61-55, and dashed UConn’s hopes for a notable road win on national television.

Hurley had strong words after the game, stating “people better get us now because we’re coming.” It’s starting to look more and more that time will be next season. You can only take so many punches before staying down for good. The Huskies keep fighting, but just can’t get over the hill.

Eventually, they will need to with the Big East looming next season. The atmosphere on Saturday was a great throwback to the days when these teams were heated rivals, with over 16,000 in attendance. A significant number of fans made the trip from Connecticut and made their presence known in the stands.

“We’re not in the Big East yet, but obviously it had a Big East feel to it, which is fun,” Hurley said. “I saw a lot of growth since the last time we saw these guys (Villanova won by 23 last season at MSG).”

“They’re going to be a great part of our league,” noted Villanova coach Jay Wright. “I kind of wish they were not coming, but it’s good for the league.

“One of the things that brought back memories was hearing the UConn contingent cheering in our arena like it was their arena. I forgot about that. They always travel well and bring people down here.”

UConn (10-6, 1-4 AAC), 9.5-point underdogs, proved they belonged on the court with the Wildcats, pushing them around the paint and led most of the second half. Statistically, it wasn’t the best game Josh Carlton has had this season, but considering the opponent, you could say it was his top overall performance, as he finished with 12 points, six rebounds and two blocks. Christian Vital grabbed eight rebounds to go along with 13 points.

The glaring issue for the Huskies was the three-point line. With their best outside shooter in Tyler Polley out for the season, they made only 2-of-15 attempts, while Villanova shot a sizzling 11-of-23 from outside. Collin Gillespie recovered from a scoreless first half to finish with 12 points for the Wildcats.

“The difference obviously was three-point shooting,” Hurley said. “Samuels (19 points, four three-pointers) was the difference with the way he shot the ball.”

In this era of three-pointer-or-lay-up-only basketball, it’s imperative for the Huskies on the current roster to improve their outside shooting, as well as Hurley to address this in recruiting. You may steal a win here or there without it against opponents of Villanova’s caliber, but long term, you will be in serious trouble.

Back to Saturday, Gilbert had a decent game with 12 points and five assists, however, he regrets the no-look pass he threw with one-minute left and UConn down one. The pass sailed wildly out of bounds and Samuels came back with a three to give the Wildcats a four-point advantage. Ballgame. And more pain for the Huskies.

“It was a bad decision,” Gilbert said. “I just hesitated and made a bad play.”

Hurley debated calling a timeout, but liked his chances with Villanova backpedaling on defense. No question he would like a do-over.

“They were kind of scrambling. Potentially, we could have got a quick and easy score,” Hurley said. “It was right at the moment where you want to go ‘time out.’ Al just kind of fired it.”

Considering all of the circumstances – opponent, the Big East angle, location and prior heartbreaks – this would’ve been UConn’s biggest win since the opening round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament. Instead, this game joins the seemingly never-ending list of what-ifs.

All of the Huskies were in middle or high school the last time the program won a road game against a ranked opponent, back in 2014 at Memphis.

At some point, the signature win on the road as underdogs will come. Until then, stay tuned. The rebuild is coming around – it’s just slow and often painful.

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