The Friday night semifinal matchup between the Villanova Wildcats and Connecticut Huskies was billed as a heavyweight fight. It did not disappoint.
These teams met in late February in one of the most intense and controversial games of the Big East slate. It featured a Dan Hurley ejection in the first ten minutes, a game-deciding charge call, and physical basketball for forty minutes. The Huskies pulled out the win thanks to a late comeback and the aforementioned charge taken by R.J. Cole.
In front of a sold-out Madison Square Garden, the teams traded haymakers in the early minutes. Seven of the game’s first eight baskets were 3-pointers. Tyrese Martin, Andre Jackson, and R.J. Cole each knocked one down for UConn, while Jermaine Samuels notched two and Caleb Daniels and Jordan Longino added one apiece for the Wildcats. Adama Sanogo was the only player to score inside the arc in the first seven minutes for either side.
Unlike the earlier game in the Friday night doubleheader, Villanova and UConn could not separate from one another in the opening frame. The largest lead held by either team was just five points for Villanova, and that lasted less than a minute.
The Huskies held Collin Gillespie and Justin Moore to two combined points through the first twenty minutes. Unable to knock down shots, the Villanova backcourt duo began to dish the ball out. They recorded 7 assists and set up teammates Slater and Samuels for more than 10 points each in the period.
Connecticut followed a similar recipe. Point guard R.J. Cole notched 5 points and 5 assists, setting up the bigger Tyrese Martin to hit the shots. Martin had 10 first-half points, leading UConn, while Jackson and Sanogo added 7 apiece.
Jermaine Samuels’ layup-and-one in the closing seconds of the half sent Villanova into the break leading 33-32.
It took less than three minutes of basketball in the second half for the Huskies to retake the lead. Martin hit two three-pointers to answer two Moore buckets, and UConn went ahead 38-37. That lead lasted for nearly two minutes until Slater answered with his third 3-pointer of the game to put Villanova back in front with 15:24 to play.
Although UConn pushed Villanova all the way to the end, the lead would hold to the final buzzer. The Wildcats pushed the margin to 8 at one point thanks at an Eric Dixon 3-pointer with 10:22 on the clock, but UConn quickly answered with five straight from Martin and Sanogo.
Villanova extended the lead to 7 at the 5:02 mark. Cole and Sanogo scored four straight to cut the deficit back to 3 with less than a minute to go. After two Jermaine Samuels free throws, Andre Jackson hit a 3-pointer to pull UConn within 2 with 10 seconds left.
UConn set up the press after the basket, and it nearly worked. Instead, Collin Gillespie, the Big East Player of the Year, broke free. He took the foul and hit the front-end to make the score 63-60, and Martin’s last second heave was both too late and wide left.
It was Gillespie who sealed the game, but Villanova’s leader played second fiddle to the forwards for most of the game. Samuels scored 21 with 12 rebounds and Slater added 15, with both playing stellar defense, to lead Villanova to the Big East Tournament Championship. Slater’s block with 4:29 left sent the crowd into a frenzy and put the exclamation point on a solid defensive performance from Villanova.
For UConn, Adama Sanogo recorded a double-double in the loss with 15 points and 13 rebounds. Martin led the team with 19 points and Cole and Jackson each finished in double-figures as well.
Villanova will play #4 Creighton on Saturday night in the Big East Tournament Championship.