Dixon’s Career Day Leads Wildcats to 85-74 Defeat of UConn


Courtesy of Olivia Pasquale/Villanovan Photography

Eric Dixon scored a career high 24 points in the win.

Meghann Morhardt, Co-Sports Editor

Since rejoining the Big East last season UConn has beaten everyone in the conference at least once, except two teams. Villanova and Creighton have yet to fall victim to the Huskies, the Wildcats not having lost to them since Mar. 22, 2014. 

Led by a career performance from sophomore forward Eric Dixon, the ‘Cats extended this streak, defeating the Huskies 85-74 at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday afternoon. 

Dixon paced the Wildcats with 24 points, 12 rebounds and four assists. He surpassed his previous career high of 15 points on a putback off an offensive rebound with 18 minutes still to play. 

“I was just in the flow,” said Dixon of his success. “They took away a lot of our threes, really guarding our guards. That’s why I love playing here, I’ve got great teammates around me. I just tried to make the tough physical play every time I got the ball, whether it be scoring or passing.” 

This season has been viewed by many as Dixon’s “breakout year” and his performance, especially against bigger, more physical teams, has supported this claim. 

“Last year, there were a lot of days in practice where Jeremiah Robinson-Earl couldn’t deal with him,” Wright said of Dixon’s progress. “He was in that learning process, we saw that last year just continuing, and we see it in practice this year too. And, he’s got so much more in him, it’s amazing. That play he made at the end, driving the ball from the wing, that’s one of all the things he’s gonna add to his game, and he can shoot it too. It’s growth and he’s smart enough to know that it doesn’t happen overnight, you have to just keep working at it.” 

Entering the game, few expected Villanova to have much success inside due to the length and athleticism of the Huskies’ frontcourt, but some early foul trouble for graduate forward Isaiah Whaley and sophomore center Adama Sanogo allowed Dixon and the ‘Cats to take advantage and establish their offense in the paint.

“We tried to prepare Adama and our guys for how good he (Dixon) is,” said UConn head coach Dan Hurley. “He doesn’t get anywhere near enough credit. That guy plays like a first or second team all-conference player.” 

The Wildcats outrebounded UConn by a 28-20 margin while outscoring them 46-30 on points in the paint, with 20 coming from Dixon. 

Dixon was one of four Wildcats to score in double-figures, followed closely by graduate guard Collin Gillespie, who finished with 19 points on 6-of-13 shooting, including 4-7 from behind the arc. Senior forward Brandon Slater added 11 points on 4-7 shooting to go along with two steals. Redshirt senior Caleb Daniels finished with 16 points, 6-6 from the free throw line, and led the defense with three steals. 

Daniels got the start in the absence of junior guard Justin Moore who sprained his ankle on Wednesday night in the game at Marquette. Moore was listed as a gametime decision, but did not feel ready when he took the floor for warmups. Villanova head coach Jay Wright said there is hope that Moore will suit up for their game on Tuesday, but they do not have a set timeline for his return. 

“We just wanted to show Justin that we were there for him,” said Dixon. “We were gonna go out there and play hard, play together. He was on the bench, screaming and yelling, keeping us together as well. So, we just wanted to be there for him.” 

Without one of their most efficient offensive options in Moore, there were some concerns for the ‘Cats entering the matchup, but they were able to respond and have multiple players rise to the challenge to make up for the missing production. The team finished shooting 59.2% from the field, including 54.5% from three and 95.5% from the foul line. 

Free throws have been key for the ‘Cats this season, especially in physical matchups like Saturday’s. Villanova currently leads the NCAA in free throw percentage at 83.3%, the best average the team has had under Wright.

“I don’t want to jinx us, I don’t wanna talk about that,” said Wright with a laugh when asked if he thinks this is the best free throw shooting team he has had. 

The matchup was physical from the start. It was evident that the two teams were energized and ready to play, both coming off of tough conference losses last week. The ‘Cats attacked the glass right away, drawing contact and getting foul calls on UConn’s bigs. Both Sanogo and Whaley exited the game before the 16:00 mark and didn’t return until the 10:00 mark, playing just eight and 12 minutes respectively in the first half. 

“Getting Sanogo in foul trouble early, it wasn’t a plan to be honest with you,” said Wright. “But, when it happened, it was positive for us.” 

A hot start from senior guard Tyrese Martin gave the Huskies some early momentum, jumping out to a 5-0 lead, but Dixon and Gillespie led the Wildcats’ 9-3 response to take the lead five minutes into the game, an advantage they would never relinquish. 

The teams traded baskets back and forth until a 12-4 run, fueled by contributions from five different Wildcats, stretched Villanova’s lead to 9 entering the final media timeout of the half. Following a transition three from Gillespie, the Wildcats secured a key defensive stop and called a timeout with 15.9 seconds remaining to set up a final play. On a play designed for him, Dixon was able to score over Sanogo with less than five seconds remaining to make the lead 14, but UConn guard RJ Cole reacted quickly, drilling a half-court heave as time ran out to bring the advantage back to 11. 

The ‘Cats shot 56% from the field in the first half, including 50% from deep and 100% from the line, while the Huskies shot just 36.4%, 40% and 90% in the respective categories. Villanova recorded seven first half steals while tallying just four turnovers of their own. 

Cole’s three to end the first half gave UConn some momentum opening the second half, cutting the Villanova lead to seven behind six and five points from Sanogo and Cole respectively. Wright, sensing the control shift, called a 30-sec timeout to regroup and make some adjustments. 

“At that point I was just in a panic, just [wanted to] stop the bleeding,” said Wright of the decision to call a timeout. “It wasn’t like we had some great plan, it was just ‘Let’s take a break here, they’re steamrolling us.’ … I would say, they went 1-3-1 and I don’t think we handled that well, early, so we did get organized.” 

The break proved beneficial as the ‘Cats came out on a 12-0 run sparked by a triple from junior guard Chris Arcidiacono and capped off with a turnaround jump shot from Dixon to give Villanova a 19-point lead entering the second media break. The Wildcats ballooned the lead to 23, including two free throws off of a Hurley technical foul, to take their largest lead of the game, but the Huskies were quickly able to trim it back to 17. 

With 6:51 remaining, freshman guard Jordan Hawkins drilled a triple over Gillespie who, on the close out, landed on Hawkins’ foot, rolling his ankle and sending a wave of silence through the Wells Fargo Center. Gillespie was helped off of the floor into the locker room to be examined, but later returned to the bench to support the team, although he was unable to check back into the game. 

Following the Gillespie injury, UConn amped up the pressure, picking up in a full court press which caused some trouble for the ‘Cats, resulting in two quick turnovers and five points for the Huskies. After a couple of possessions however, the patience and poise of Villanova’s offense shined through and the Wildcats were able to weather the storm, extending the lead back to 15 with just over three minutes remaining. 

UConn continued to push, but it was too little too late for the road team, never coming within single digits for the remainder of the game. 

With the win, Villanova improves to 17-6 overall, 10-3 in the Big East, sitting just half a game behind top seeded Providence (19-2, 9-1). UConn remains at fourth in the conference, falling to 15-6 and 6-4. 

The Wildcats return to action on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden as they look to complete the season sweep of St. John’s on the road.