PHILADELPHIA (AP)UConn fans had some fun at the expense of Villanova as chants of “NIT! NIT!” rained down at the perennial championship contender that scuffled this season and now needs a 4-for-4 run in New York to have a shot at March Madness.
Dan Hurley doesn’t need to do the math. His evaluation of a UConn team that from November to the Big East finale has reigned as one of the toughest in the conference is about as good as it gets from the coach.
“We’ve been pretty elite,” he said.
Spoken like a coach who believes his team can win the Big East Tournament.
Jordan Hawkins scored 24 points and Alex Karaban had 16 to lead streaking No. 14 Connecticut to a 71-59 win over Villanova on Saturday night at the Wells Fargo Center.
The Huskies (24-7, 13-7 Big East) head into the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden winners of five straight and eight of nine. The Huskies stretched the lead to 15 points in the second half and remained alive for a top-three seed in the Big East Tournament.
“We were kind of lacking a big-time kind of road win,” Hurley said. “This was, for me, just a big-time road win to win as comfortably as we did against a team that’s playing as good as anyone in the league.”
The Wildcats (16-15, 10-10) are going to need to win the whole thing if they are going to make the NCAA Tournament under first-year coach Kyle Neptune.
“I know it’s how a lot of people think,” Neptune said.
But for the Wildcats, Neptune said, it’s only about the next practice, the next game.
The transition from Hall of Fame coach Jay Wright to Neptune has been uneven this season for the Wildcats. The Wildcats were hit with injuries to two key starters – Justin Moore, who tore his right Achilles tendon in the NCAA Tournament, and Cam Whitmore, who broke his right thumb in the preseason, that had the Wildcats stumble to a 2-5 starts.
Whitmore came back in December and Moore returned in late January and they turned Villanova into instant winners. The Wildcats had won four straight and six of seven until this stumble in the finale at their off-campus home in Philly.
Moore led the Wildcats with 17 points and Whitmore had 14.
“We know we’re a great team that can do great things,” Moore said.
Don’t count Villanova out at MSG.
“Feels like maybe next week they have as good a chance as almost anyone in the league to win that tournament,” Hurley said.
But it won’t be easy – especially if the Wildcats run into UConn again. Andre Jackson Jr. buried a 3-pointer early in the second half for an 11-point lead that started to give the Huskies some space.
Villanova’s Eric Dixon fired a pass to Whitmore that sailed out of bounds and UConn came right back and scored when Karaban took a perfect bounce and drove down the lane for an easy bucket. When Hawkins hit a 3 for a 42-28 lead, UConn fans that made the trip went wild and the Wildcats were forced to take a timeout.
Whitmore made a driving layup off a turnover that got the fans off their feet and pulled the Wildcats within nine. The freshman sensation missed the free throw with 7:34 left and Nova couldn’t do much else the rest of the way.
The Huskies never let the Wildcats get comfortable and held them to just 36% shooting from the floor and 25% from 3-point range.
“We’ve played great basketball the whole year,” Hurley said. “It’s a confident team. And I think it’s a loose team that gets excited to play in tournaments. We won’t be uptight. We’re going to go for it.”
UConn: The Huskies snapped a three-game losing streak to Villanova in Philadelphia and improved to just 13-22 in the city. Maybe the big market success this season can be a sign of what’s ahead for the Huskies when they hit New York.
Villanova: Must win the Big East Tournament to have a shot at a second straight Final Four trip.
The Big East Tournament starts Wednesday at Madison Square Garden. The Wildcats are the defending champions and have won five of the last seven tournaments. Villanova is the No. 6 seed and plays No. 11 Georgetown. UConn can finish as high the No. 3 seed.
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