UConn men fall to No. 14 Villanova, 61-55

Philadelphia — UConn coach Dan Hurley hugged Alterique Gilbert in the hallway of the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday after another gut-wrenching loss to a nationally-ranked foe.

Hurley whispered in the ear of his starting point guard before stepping away.

Earlier, he delivered an encouraging post-game message to his Huskies.

“We’re this close,” Gilbert said of Hurley’s message. “We’re still building. There will be a break-through day. (He said) things of that nature and just trying to keep us in a positive mindset.”

Add a 61-55 loss to No. 14 Villanova to the list of painful defeats this season. UConn was coming off a double overtime three-point loss to No. 23 Wichita State. The Huskies also fell in double overtime by one point to nationally-ranked Xavier and lost by three to Indiana earlier this season.

It appeared the Huskies (10-7) would finally break through with an upset win on Saturday. But they made too many mistakes down the stretch and lost the lead for good with about three minutes remaining. The Wildcats (14-3) closed the game with an 18-7 run.

The Huskies have dropped four of their last five. Dating back to the 2014-15 season, they’re 4-27 versus top 25 teams.

“We’re getting closer,” Hurley said. “We’re making a lot of progress as a program. We’re changing the way we show up. My responsibility as a coach is to extract that type of fight and effort on a nightly basis and then we’ll get enough wins that we can feel good about it at the end of the season.

“... We’re on our way back. … People better get us now, because it’s coming.”

The difference was the Wildcats made winning plays late in the game, the Huskies didn’t.

UConn led by as many as six in the second half and by four with five minutes remaining. But the Huskies went scoreless for about three and a half minutes, allowing Villanova to rally.

Junior Jermaine Samuels fueled the comeback for the Wildcats, scoring 15 of his game-high 19 points after intermission. His 3-point play handed Villanova the lead for good, 52-51, with 2:59 left and started a 7-0 run.

The Huskies stayed in the fight.

After Gilbert buried a clutch jump shot to cut the gap to 54-53, the Huskies made a defensive stop and got the ball back.

Gilbert (12 points, five assists, four turnovers) tried to force a pass inside to teammate Akok Akok but threw the ball away for a crucial turnover.

“Bad decision,” Gilbert said. “Just hesitated, really. Made a bad play. Just live and learn. That was a tough play for us. I’ll learn from it.”

Hurley added: “It’s a little bit of just where we’re at right now. … Good teams, winning teams like Villanova, Houston and Wichita State, they don’t make those types of passes. They’re just a lot more solid at that point in the game.”

Samuels answered with a damaging 3-pointer for a 57-53 edge with 33.7 seconds remaining. Senior Christian Vital (13 points, eight rebounds) answered for UConn, but Villanova sealed the win from the foul line, as Jeremiah Robinson-Earl drained four free throws in the final 24 seconds. The Wildcats have won 10 of their last 11.

“We had them on their heels the whole game,” Akok said. “We just slipped up at the end.”

The Huskies did so many things well.

They got off to a fast start, taking an 11-4 lead, and trailed by six at intermission. They took off again to open the second half, surging in front with a 10-3 spurt.

They controlled the boards, 35-23, scored 36 points in the paint and limited the Wildcats to 39 percent shooting. Junior Josh Carlton (12 points, six rebounds) was an inside presence.

But their 17 turnovers, which were cashed in for 23 points, and Villanova’s sharp 3-point shooting badly hurt them. The Wildcats converted 11 of 23 from beyond the arc, only 8 for 26 from two-point range.

UConn, on the other hand, made just 2 of 15 3-pointers. The Huskies clearly miss Tyler Polley, who suffered a season-ending knee injury on Jan. 10. He’s the team’s best perimeter shooter.

The Huskies did win one thing on Saturday.

That’s respect.

That was one of their goals coming in after losing the last two meetings by an average of 21.5 points.

“I just saw a lot of growth since the last two times we saw these guys,” Hurley said. “Obviously, it’s a frustrated locker room because that game was on the table for us.”

The two programs will meet as a Big East opponents next season when the Huskies leave the American Athletic Conference.

g.keefe@theday.com

 

 

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