Horrid second half dooms Huskies at MSG
NEW YORK – The atmosphere at Madison Square Garden on Saturday afternoon was a positive flashback down memory lane for UConn and its fans.
Facing off against former Big East rival and defending national champion Villanova, the Huskies played a strong first half, holding the lead for a significant portion of it before heading to the locker room tied at 30.
The stands were packed to the top rows and UConn was displaying the positive strides it’s made this season before a nationally televised audience. It was a great stage for the Huskies to steal a much-needed NCAA Tournament resume win.
Three minutes into the second half, UConn led by one after Villanova coach Jay Wright picked up a technical and their fans could hardly contain themselves. When the Huskies scored their next point, however, they barely received a polite golf clap.
In-between those points, UConn received a hard dose of reality as the Wildcats ran them off The Garden floor with a 19-0 run, which ultimately resulted in a dominating 81-58 Villanova victory.
UConn had no answers for Eric Paschall, who scored 21 points on 7-of-12 shooting with multiple dunks, and Phil Booth (18 points, 6-of-6 shooting, 7 assists). Despite losing four players to the NBA, Villanova’s ball movement looked as crisp as it did last season in a win over the Huskies in Hartford. On Saturday, the extra swing pass led a sizzling 12-of-23 shooting from three-point range.
UConn coach Dan Hurley said his team “played hard,” but understandably, their body language looked dejected as Villanova continued to pile it on. Jalen Adams, in particular, had a rough go of it, scoring only eight points on 3-of-13 shooting to go along with six turnovers, four fouls and a team-worst -25.
Christian Vital led the Huskies with 18 points. Alterique Gilbert added 14 and said simply, “Our hunger (level) has to go up.”
Heading into conference play, UConn is 9-4, just five wins shy of last season’s total. In 12 of its 13 games this season, the favorite has won (UConn's win over Syracuse the exception). The Huskies have not been able to secure an extra upset win or two that will catch the tournament committee’s eyes come March.
Outside of a dominant AAC regular season, it will probably take winning the conference tournament championship to make the NCAA Tournament, a common theme for the program over the past few years. Right now, that is acceptable, with Hurley just in year one and running his preferred fast pace system with players he did not recruit, players that don’t necessary fit that style.
Wright says one thing he’s noticed with UConn is its ability to “scrap it up.” Hurley said he’s considering slowing down their offensive pace, but also believes the team needs to overcome a mental hurdle, as well.
“I think it’s more of a mindset,” Hurley said. “When things start going badly, you have to be more determined, you have to get more solid, you have to trust your teammates more.”
The three-year series between the teams wraps up in Philadelphia next season and hopefully something can be arranged for it to continue, preferably at the mid-point in New York again. Having it scheduled on a weekend afternoon made it easy for both fan bases to fill the building, and the atmosphere felt like an old school Big East Tournament game.
Currently, Villanova’s program is at a level that UConn is striding to get back to. Hurley knows that, and is determined to get the Huskies back there.
“They showed what their program is,” Hurley said. “They’re one of the best programs in the country and we showed how far we are from getting there.”
The second half on Saturday was the perfect illustration of that.