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The nutshell play came with 5:16 to go. Villanova's JayVaughn Pinkston missed a second free throw, but UConn could not find a way to wrest the ball away.
It ended up out on the perimeter, James Bell hit a three-pointer, and the lead was back to six.
That's how the UConn team spent its Saturday afternoon at the XL Center, playing a shell game in which it could not keep pace, never seemed to get to the right spot. Villanova outrebounded the Huskies, rattled them, bottled them up and ultimately defeated them, 70-61, before 15,165, the largest crowd of the men's basketball season.
"It came down to a street fight out there," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. "They threw it off the backboard and went and got it. We didn't make the hustle plays, the toughness plays that I want to see from my team."
The Wildcats, who have had an enigmatic season, outrebounded UConn 41-25, including 20-5 on the offensive side. When the Huskies couldn't rebound, they couldn't run. And when they were trapped in a half-court game, their guards, Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, had nowhere to go. Napier scored two points and Boatright four, those four coming in the meaningless final 51 seconds.
"We can't afford to have both of them have bad shooting nights at the same time," said DeAndre Daniels, who scored 13.
Just three days after their exhilarating upset victory over sixth-ranked Syracuse, the Huskies (17-7, 7-5 in the Big East) returned to Earth, looking much closer to what they are — a good team, a hard-fighting team, but with flaws that can make things look ugly at times. UConn had 19 turnovers.
"We don't sit on our success," Napier said, "that's one thing I know for sure about this team. We just came out a little fragile today, without enough toughness."
Villanova (16-10, 7-6) had beaten Syracuse and Louisville, yet lost twice to Providence and, in the nonconference period, lost to Columbia. So this was Big East basketball at its most characteristic — unpredictable.
"UConn is a very good team," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "That's why I'm excited about this. If I didn't have so much respect for them, this wouldn't be such a good win."
Freshman Ryan Arcidiacono scored 25 points for Villanova, sticking five of eight three-point attempts. Senior Mouphtaou Yarou led the Wildcats' dominance on the boards with 11 points and 16 rebounds.
The Huskies, with their surprising resume, have raised expectations for the final weeks of a season that will nevertheless end empty, with postseason ineligibility. When Napier drew his first foul after 16 seconds, and his second after 2:28, a hush fell over the XL Center — it was obvious that UConn would be in for a rough ride. They were scoreless for nearly 7 minutes before Napier returned, and with his passing, not his scoring, helped ignite a 16-3 run that put UConn in the lead, 33-30, at the half, despite the Huskies' getting not even one offensive rebound.
Daniels, Omar Calhoun (16 points) and others, such as little-used Leon Tolksdorf, who came in to nail a couple of threes, picked up the slack. But with Napier, who was averaging 16.9 points, and Boatright, 15.9, both scoreless, there was too much slack to be picked up.
"I got myself into foul trouble," Napier said. "I started looking for teammates. I wasn't too aggressive. I took a lot of threes, and I didn't see them connect, so I became more passive."
Wright, of course, was worried that UConn had a three-point lead without a point from their two top scorers. When Napier hit his first jumper of the second half, it seemed to portend one of his familiar spurts.
But Villanova's rebounding was preventing UConn from running. And its defense was clamping down on the guards, so that never materialized.
"Doing the job on them was the key," Wright said. "We played them as a team. Sometimes we trapped them. Sometimes we denied them. Sometimes we switched screens. We just had to focus on those two."
Villanova took control of the game with a 13-0 run midway through the second half. Calhoun, who was 9 of 9 from the line, made two to give UConn a 45-39 lead with 13:31 left, then Arcidiacono hit a three, Yarou a layup and Bell, following a steal, passed to Tony Chennault for a basket that put 'Nova back on top. Arcidiacono and Bell teamed up for an alley-oop, talking a page from the UConn backcourt playbook, and Arcidiacono's layup — he drove past Napier, who had to avoid fouling — made it 52-45 with 9:35 to go.
The Huskies had a run in them, and were within two, 54-52, after Tyler Olander's steal set up a Daniels layup, but Villanova's relentless board-crashing ruined UConn's party, and probably its hope of cracking the Top 25 in the polls on Monday and vying for the Big East regular season title.
"Twenty second-chance points," Ollie lamented as he perused the stat sheet. "Not going to win that way. … We'll be ready for Cincinnati [on Thursday]. I told my team, that's another team that's going to have the same recipe, so if we don't get tougher, it's going to be a tough road ahead."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun