This was neither excruciating, nor embarrassing. The UConn men were neither blown out nor beaten at the buzzer.
The Huskies were simply beaten Saturday by an elite team, beaten by Villanova, class of the Big East for years, in that matter-of-fact manner in which teams like the Wildcats win games like this. Any number of reasons they might have lost, but reflecting the cool confidence of Jay Wright, they put this one in the win column like businessmen completing a routine transaction, who’ve done it before and know they’ll do it again. I’s dotted, T’s crossed. Pleasure doing business.
“They were really good defensively,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said, “made far less mistakes then we did, and then they made all the critical plays in the last eight minutes.”
This was the way the UConn teams of the past used to handle these things, in the era in which they steamrolled the original Big East. It’s the way Hurley has promised it will be again. From where the program was when he took over three years ago to where it stands today, there is no reason to doubt that on the basis of this loss. However disappointing, this 68-60 loss was a far cry from Villanova’s humiliating rout at the XL Center on Jan. 20, 2018, the game from which Hurley, after taking over, showed clip after clip exclaiming to players, “that ... can’t ... happen.”
It’s coming, as Hurley has been known to say, and soon. But not yet.
“We’re confident,” Hurley said. “This is one of the best teams in the country, the class of our league. Their mindset is championship level.”
What’s needed to close the gap is intangible, but it was evident in this “must-see TV” game, as Kevin Freeman described it to the players the night before. Villanova played as a unit, never rattled, while UConn came to depend heavily on James Bouknight in his second game back from the elbow injury. Even when Bouknight got off to a brilliant start, with 14 points in the first 11 minutes, Villanova stuck to Wright’s defensive principles, just tightened them up.
And while a harried Bouknight, who missed 10 shots in a row, and the Huskies showed a combination of fatigue and frustration setting in, Villanova never skipped a beat, nor had a hair out of place as its grip on the game slowly tightened. Though Collin Gillespie was only 2 of 6 on 3-pointers, they were both in the final 3:18, and effectively finished UConn. Villanova moved the ball while the ball stuck on UConn’s end. The Huskies turned it over 10 times, not bad. Villanova eight. Championship mindset.
And Villanova, after a couple of slip-ups against St. John’s and Creighton, is about a cinch to be Big East regular-season champs again, the team to beat in the Garden and a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.
UConn, without a statement-making win in Philly, will have to scramble to get there, with little margin for error. The home game against Marquette and home and away games vs. Georgetown are must wins, the absolute minimum, and if they can add a win at Seton Hall and run the table, it would look good. Otherwise, they the Huskies will need a run, if not a miracle, in the Big East Tournament.
And for any or all of that to happen, the Huskies will have to depend on Bouknight, who finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds, but also get more from the players around him. They did that against Providence, but in their two losses with him on the floor, to Creighton and Villanova, the top of the conference, they did not.
After hitting six of his first seven shots, Bouknight took a hard fall, trying to brace himself with his left hand, but landing on the elbow that required surgery to remove bone chips. His face showed a lot of pain, but after a few minutes on the sidelines he was back. He just didn’t make another shot until the end of the game. In the second half, Bouknight looked gassed, but he wouldn’t use either as an excuse.
“I think I did a bad job with my body language today,” he said, “but that’s because I hold myself to such a high standard, that when things don’t go the way I want them too, sometimes, it’s hard for me to hold it in.”
And if Bouknight, who played 36 minutes, wasn’t as effective, he kept hitting the ground for loose balls, chasing long rebounds and, at one point after a turnover, ran the length of the floor to contest a dunk. He’s leaving it on the floor as his college career winds down, no doubt there.
This part of Hurley’s culture, the championship mindset, is established. And on a different day, this late in a conventional season with enough games to practices behind them, Bouknight and the Huskies might have been able to wrest this one away from the champs, as you must wrest a game away from experienced teams that don’t beat themselves.
That we’ll never know. With four games and a conference tournament still in front of them, the Huskies are running out of time to close the gap in 2021, but remain in the fight and have gotten a good look at what they need to be.
“We need to focus on limiting mistakes,” Bouknight said, “drawing a line on defense and shutting teams down. That’s what we need to do.”
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