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No. 10 Villanova outlasts UConn men 68-60

Another loss to a member of the Big East elite, another game closer to the end of the regular season.

UConn is running out of chances and running out of time to prove it is worthy of an NCAA tournament berth.

A marquee victory eluded the Huskies on Saturday, as they dropped a 68-60 decision to No. 10 Villanova, the Big East leader, at Finneran Pavilion in Villanova, Pa.

Four regular-season games remain for the Huskies (10-6, 7-6), who are 0-4 against the top three teams in the Big East this season.

Coach Dan Hurley has faith the Huskies can finish strong just like they did last season.

"We're confident," Hurley said. "This is one of the best teams in the country that we faced today. Class of our league. Credit them. They made far less mistakes and their mindset is championship level. We've got a chance to put something together down the stretch here. We don't have a lot of time and we don't have much of a safety net."

Sophomore James Bouknight got off to a blistering start in his second game back from a prolonged layoff due to an elbow injury, but faded in the second half. He scored a game-high 21 points and added 10 rebounds but had just seven points on 1-for-10 shooting in the second half after starting the game six for seven from the field.

Bouknight, who had a career-high five turnovers, refused to blame fatigue for his second-half slump.

"I pushed through it, I played through it so I'm not going to use that as an excuse," he said.

A bigger issue is that Bouknight didn't get much help, as only redshirt junior R.J. Cole hit double figures, finishing with 10 points. Junior Tyrese Martin chipped in nine points and 11 rebounds.

The Huskies struggled offensively, shooting just 36.4 percent from the field and 25.9 percent from three (7-for-27). They went over seven minutes without a field goal in the second half, watching the deficit grow to 10, and went 8 for 27 overall after intermission. They had a season-low eight assists.

"They were switching a lot," Hurley said of Villanova's defense. "They were really loading up to James. The lesson learned for us today is that we have to play offense. We've got to get the ball moving better. The ball just can't end up in James' hands just trying to bail us out."

"Just collectively as a team, we've got to have a better approach."

UConn played well defensively, forcing the Big East's top 3-point shooting team to make just 5 of 22 from beyond the arc. Villanova shot 42 percent and scored well below its season average of 78.6 points.

Neither team led by more than six until inside the final eight minutes.

As championship level teams often do, the Wildcats (14-3, 9-2) made winning plays down the stretch. Senior Collin Gillespie finished with a team-best 20 points while Jeremiah Robinson-Earl added 17 points and 11 rebounds.

Gillespie's baseline drive put the Wildcats on top for good, 43-42. Robinson-Earl scored six straight points to extend the lead to 53-45.

Trailing by 57-47, UConn closed to within five on freshman Adama Sanogo's inside basket. But Gillespie buried a big 3-pointer that just beat the shot clock with 1:30 remaining to ice the win.

Bouknight might need several bags of ice for his bumps and bruises. About six minutes into the game, he hit the floor hard after converting a driving shot, banging his elbow. He headed to the bench where team trainer James Doran checked him out.

Less than three minutes later, Bouknight returned to action but struggled the rest of the game.

When asked about his hard fall, Bouknight said: "I just fell on my elbow. It felt fine, so I went back in. I wasn't worried at all."

"They were pretty physical with him," Hurley said. "He's a hard-playing guy. Just bruised up and banged up. More of his issue today was fatigue, conditioning. Then as he got tired he tried to do a little bit too much."

While the Huskies are clearly a better team with Bouknight back, they're also a team that needs to make some adjustments and find its on-court chemistry.

UConn has games left against at Georgetown (Tuesday), Marquette (Saturday), at Seton Hall (March 3) and Georgetown (March 5).

"We've got to win down the stretch here and we've got to get James' conditioning and his cardio back," Hurley said. "And then we've got to put that chemistry together with the group quickly after missing him for six weeks. When you play an elite team, a team of that caliber, that was a tough ask for James to put together a virtuoso performance with one game in 45 days and five practices.

"So we'll be better by the time that Big East tournament rolls around. Hopefully, we get a chance to play them again."

g.keefe@theday.com

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