Fast start not enough for Wildcats

Nathan McGann

The Wildcats fell to the No. 3 UConn Huskies 89-83 in a matchup on Wednesday at the XL Center in Hartford, Conn. Although the ‘Cats started fast, a physical UConn defense in the second half and an impressive showing by guards A.J. Price and Jerome Dyson proved too much for Villanova to handle.

The ‘Cats started out strong – a quick 3-pointer from senior Dwayne Anderson ignited ‘Nova’s offense. Despite UConn’s size advantage, the Wildcats matched the Huskies’ toughness and pulled ahead to an early 8-3 lead.

After the first timeout, the Wildcats continued putting pressure on UConn with help off the bench. Sophomore guard Corey Stokes, who was instrumental in last year’s victory over the Huskies, hit a quick shot from beyond the arc, while other sophomore guard Corey Fisher hit a layup in transition. After senior forward Dante Cunningham made a steal and a jump shot, the Wildcats shot reached their biggest lead of the game 21-13.

Because of Uconn’s dominance around the rim, the Wildcats’ defense stepped up and forced the Huskies to take contested shots. UConn’s missed shots turned into baskets in transition for the ‘Cats.

However, the Huskies began to assert their presence in the paint. ‘Nova struggled to get stops and the Huskies, with some help from the free throw line, went on an 11-0 run to take their first lead of the night. The Wildcats didn’t help themselves on the offensive end either. After a missed dunk from Antonio Peña, Villanova turned the ball over on four straight possessions.

UConn dominated at the free throw line the entire contest, despite averaging only 68.6 percent at the line this season.

The foul troubles for ‘Nova continued as Cunningham fouled out early in the game. The Wildcats’ depleted bench meant that senior forward Frank Tchuisi received some significant minutes. He set screens on offense and disrupted UConn’s shots. Tchuisi scored his first two points of the season on an easy layup and did not get back on the court in the second half.

The Huskies’ big man Hasheem Thabeet, who only managed 10 points, was forced to ride the bench early in the second after picking up his third foul. Villanova used that to its advantage to take yet another lead at the 15 minute mark – the tenth lead change of the game.

A major momentum shift came with just under 14 minutes when sophomore guard Reggie Redding, double-teamed away from the basket, forced a pass that was stolen by Dyson. Running the floor, Dyson made an easy slam dunk and was intentionally fouled by Stokes. After making both free throws, UConn went up by five, while on an 8-0 run.

The Huskies’ defensive pressure forced Wildcat turnovers. Sophomore guard Scottie Reynolds seemed most affected by the UConn defense and was unable to make shots from beyond the arc and seeing very few open looks at the rim.

The chance of an upset died out when Cunningham fouled out after a hard box-out on offense with less than nine minutes remaining. UConn took its first double-digit lead for either team shortly after he left.

With less than three minutes to go, Villanova, down nine, continued to fight. Anderson, arguably the most physical player on the court last night, had a huge steal, nice rebound on the other end and strong put-back to cut the Huskies’ lead to five. With a chance to trim the lead even further from the free throw line, Redding, who played well in the second half, missed both of the attempts.

‘Nova then forced a turnover with the shot clock running out on the Huskies, and Reynolds tried to get his game going. He pushed the ball and put pressure on the Huskies – drawing a foul on the drive. Reynolds made both free throws and the lead was down to one possession. Head Coach Jay Wright continued to press on defense, but it was unsuccessful against the Huskies.

Down five with less than a minute to go, the Wildcats had to foul, but the Huskies never looked back.

Stokes played well in the first half, putting up 12 points on three 3-pointers, but he couldn’t find his stroke late in the game. Reynolds made a three from the corner due to an ill-advised UConn foul, but it was not enough to gain back the lead. UConn escaped the upset in what was to yet another physical Big East battle.

Five Villanova players managed double-digit scoring nights, led by Anderson with 15 points and Reynolds with 14. Cunningham, the Wildcats’ season leader in scoring, totaled only six points in 14 minutes of play. He struggled against the defensive giant, Thabeet.

Price led all scorers with a career-high 29 points, and the Huskies shot 31 of 39 from the stripe.

Villanova travels to Florida this weekend to take on USF Saturday at the Sun Dome.