Villanova uses big first-half push, defense, to rout UConn

Villanova UConn Basketball
Villanova's Jalen Brunson dribbles around Connecticut's Christian Vital during the second half. Jalen Brunson led the Wildcats with 23 points.

HARTFORD, Conn. – Jay Wright began his postgame press conference on Saturday by talking about how nice it was to be back here playing against a former Big East rival and remembering the close games that Villanova and Connecticut had over the years.

“This brings back great memories of great battles with UConn and the crowds and the passion of the people here, that’s pretty cool,” the Wildcats coach said.

However, there had to be very few memories of a game between the two teams being this one-sided. Blame that on the No. 1 Wildcats, who used their defense and rebounding to spark an 18-2 run in the final 6½ minutes of the first half and rolled to an 81-61 win over the Huskies before a sellout crowd of 15,564 at the XL Center.

In the 33 seasons that the Cats and the Huskies both were members of the Big East, covering 58 games, only four were decided by 20 or more points. In the 20 games since the last rout (a 100-76 UConn victory in 1998), 15 were decided by single digits, eight by five points or fewer.

Saturday’s game looked as though it would be tight, since neither team started the game shooting the ball well. In the opening 13 minutes, 30 seconds, Villanova was 7 of 27 from the field, compared to 6 of 20 for UConn, and the visitors held a 21-16 lead.

But as they did three days earlier in a 32-point win at Georgetown, the Wildcats (18-1) turned it up defensively, which led to easier shots. For the rest of the half, the Huskies (10-9) made just one of eight attempts and committed four turnovers.

Villanova’s lead at the break was 39-18, and the margin reached 31 in the second half.

“Before that, we were getting good shots and didn’t make them, but we did a great job on the offensive glass, and we did a great job defensively,” Wright said. “They could have separated themselves from us at that time, because we couldn’t make a shot. When we separated, we got it going off of our defense.”

The Wildcats grabbed six offensive rebounds in the game’s opening 4½ minutes, 12 in the first half, and 16 for the game, part of a 48-32 advantage on the boards. As for offense in the closing first-half spurt, Jalen Brunson, who made just one of his first eight attempts, scored 7 of his game-high 23 points.

“You keep shooting and not worry about it,” said Brunson, who finished 9 for 16 and 5 for 11 from deep. “You go out there, and you try to get stops on defense. I knew shots eventually were going to fall.”

UConn shot 25 percent in the first half and finished at 34.4 percent, the second straight game in which Villanova allowed less than 40 percent.

“We had a lull [defensively], and it got us at Butler,” Wright said, referring to his team’s only loss this season. “Then we got a week [off], we got some practices. We got a little bit better against Marquette, a little bit better after that. It’s been gradual, and I thought this was probably one of our best.”

The Wildcats shot 41.2 percent, their lowest since their season opener (40.3 percent), and knocked down 15 three-pointers, the eighth time in their last nine games that they’ve hit at least 12.