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Hartford - It came down to a matter of toughness.
Villanova had it, UConn didn't.
It was really that simple.
A lack of toughness was the dominating theme following UConn's 70-61 Big East loss Saturday afternoon at the XL Center.
"Those guys just played tougher than us," junior Shabazz Napier said. "We didn't play with the toughness we should have. When you don't play tough, you usually lose games."
The Huskies (17-7, 7-5) were outhustled, outplayed and badly outrebounded (41-25), especially on the offense end where the Wildcats turned 20 offensive boards into 20 second chance points.
"It came down to a street fight out there," coach Kevin Ollie said. "They threw it off the backboard and they went to go get it. And we didn't make the hustle plays, the toughness plays that I want to see from my team."
They were also passive on offense, as the normally lethal backcourt combination of Napier and Ryan Boatright combined for just six points on 3-for-15 shooting and 10 turnovers. They crumbled under defensive pressure, leading to a season-high 19 turnovers.
All in all, it was UConn's first real stink bomb this season.
The dreadful performance came on the heels of an upset of No. 6 Syracuse Wednesday during which UConn displayed a ton of toughness and emotion.
"I wish we had it today," said junior Niels Giffey, who had 11 points. "I guess when you're coming from a game like Syracuse where everybody is hyped up it's hard to focus. And focus always leads to toughness, the energy and hustle plays, the box-outs and rebounding."
Villanova put together a smart game plan, focusing on bottling up Napier and Boatright, who came in averaging 32.8 points per game, with an aggressive man-to-man defense. Napier (2 points, 10 assists) battled foul trouble and played passively while Boatright (four points) just looked lost, as both finished with season-lows for points.
"Those two guards are the key, and I think we really did a good job on them," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "We played them as a team. Sometimes we trapped them. Sometimes we denied them. Sometimes we switched on screens. We just had to focus on those two."
Still, even with Napier and Boatright neutralized, UConn led 33-30 at the break and went up 45-39 with 13:30 left. But the Wildcats wrestled the lead away thanks to their some hard-core board work and freshman Ryan Arcidiacono, who had a game-high 25 points. His fifth 3-pointer sparked a decisive 13-0 spurt that turned the deficit into a 7-point lead.
UConn attempted to recover, closing to within 54-52 on Daniels' driving basket with 7:16 left. Villanova came up with two huge offensive rebounds, leading to consecutive three-pointers by junior James Bell.
Bell's second one was particularly damaging, as it followed two missed free throws and handed the Wildcats a 60-54 lead with 5:14 left.
The Huskies continued to self-destruct, committing three straight turnovers - two by Boatright. Bell (11 points, all in the second half) hit another three to up the lead to 67-57.
Game, set and match.
Boatright scored his only points in the final 51 seconds. UConn's undersized and thin frontcourt had no answer for 6-foot-10, 250-pound forward Mouphtaou Yarou (11 points, a season-high tying 16 rebounds).
"We have to do a better job battling and fighting down there," freshman Omar Calhoun said. "They were able to do what they wanted."
Calhoun led UConn with a team-high 16 points and six rebounds.
Despite his team's disappointing play, Ollie remains confident in his players.
"I'm not jumping off a cliff," Ollie said. "We'll be ready for Cincinnati (Thursday). .. I told my team, this is another team that's going to have the same recipe, so if we don't get tougher, it's going to be a tough road ahead. I think our guys are going to come back. They've been very resilient throughout the year."