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UConn men collapse in second half in lopsided loss to Villanova

New York — Big stage, big game.

And an even bigger flop.

In many ways, UConn looked like last year's team that frequently buckled in the face of adversity on Saturday afternoon.

A tight, entertaining game against former Big East rival Villanova dissolved into a lopsided affair early in the second half. The Wildcats ran away with a stunning 19-0 run.

The Huskies dropped an 81-58 decision in a nationally-televised game before a Madison Square Garden crowd of 16,027. They were outscored 51-28 in the second half on the way to their most lopsided defeat this season.

"Credit to Villanova, one of the best teams in the country," UConn coach Dan Hurley said. "Obviously, we showed how far away from being there with our performance in front of a great crowd. Wish we could have gave them something that last 17 minutes. Obviously, a real brutal last 17 minutes for us."

Simply put, the Huskies (9-4) lack the toughness, talent and desire to defeat most marquee opponents. Their other losses are to Iowa, Arizona and Florida State with their only quality win against Syracuse.

"For this team, our hunger has to go up," guard Alterique Gilbert said. "In these types of games, we've got to want to win, that's just what it comes down to."

Villanova's best players delivered, as St. Thomas More graduate Eric Paschall scored a team-high 21 points and guard Phil Booth added 18. UConn's star guard Jalen Adams struggled, finishing with eight points on 3-for-13 shooting to go with five assists and a season-high six turnovers. Junior Christian Vital had a team-high 18 points and five rebounds while Gilbert added 14 points.

The game stood deadlocked at 30-all at halftime.

Momentum appeared to be on UConn's side after Villanova coach Jay Wright was whistled for a technical foul and Adams made both free throws for a 36-35 lead with 17:07 remaining.

Then the Huskies completely fell apart. They failed to score for six minutes, 41 seconds, while the Wildcats found their offensive rhythm and seemingly couldn't miss, sinking a sizzling 62.5 percent (15-for-24) in the second half and 57.4 percent overall.

Graduate transfer Joe Cremo, who started in place of injured starting point guard Collin Gillespie, buried a 3-pointer to start a devastating 19-0 spurt and ended it with another 3-pointer, making it 54-36 with 10:37 left.

Turnovers piled for the Huskies, who finished with 17 overall, two less than the Wildcats (9-4). They shot an icy 40.7 percent, 32.1 percent after intermission. They were outrebounded, 35-21.

"UConn is a team that they're going to play you hard and scrap it up," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "If you're smart and aggressive, you can take advantage of it. ... In the first half, we struggled with it a little bit and then just stuck with it in the second half and were able to break through."

In their losses, the Huskies have had trouble limiting the damage when things go south. That happened again on Saturday.

They lost their poise and focus when the Wildcats mounted their second-half charge. They committed six turnovers during that ugly stretch.

Instead of getting their revenge for last season's 20-point loss in Hartford, they walked off the court with another humbling loss. They finished with a season low for points.

"For me, I don't want say it's a here-we-go-again thing, but it's a mindset," Hurley said. "When things start going badly, you've got to get more determined and more solid. You've got to trust your teammates more. You've got hunt offense less and try to get more stops and set better screens. That's how you get yourself out of bad stretches.

"Not by making a (hesitation) 17-foot pull-up. You're not going to score out of trouble. You've got to play your team out of trouble by being solid. That's something is going to take us a little bit of time to build and change that here-we-go-again mindset where things just seem to spiral and unravel."

UConn enters a 10-day holiday break with a lot of questions. The Huskies will take a few days off for Christmas before returning to campus.

The Huskies still have hopeful visions of playing in the postseason next March. To do so, they'll have to be a contender in the American Athletic Conference. They open league play Jan. 2 at South Florida.

"It will be nice to see our families and get away from basketball just decompress a little bit," Vital said. "Then we've got to come back to campus and really lock in and understand what we need to do and the position we're in if we want to play in March."

g.keefe@theday.com


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