August 17, 2022

It felt and sounded like the old Big East. The result was familiar to the new one. 

A sold-out Garden was rocking like it used to in March — pre-realignment — as two old rivals met in an electric atmosphere that may have featured two second-weekend teams. Ultimately, No. 2 Villanova reminded everyone it still controls this league, outplaying the third-seeded Huskies for the majority of the second half and advancing to Saturday night’s Big East Tournament title game with a 63-60 semifinal victory. 

After they were eliminated in the quarterfinal by Georgetown a year ago, the Wildcats will look to cut the nets down against fourth-seeded Creighton, an 85-58 blowout winner over No. 1 Providence. 

Villanova, the betting favorite when this tournament began, had to scrape by St. John’s on Thursday night in the quarterfinals by a point. It was far more impressive 24 hours later, using Connecticut’s strength — its interior — against them. The Wildcats mostly went to a five-out attack, creating mismatches on the perimeter, and they defended Huskies star big man Adama Sanogo well, limiting him to 15 points on 6 of 15 shooting. 

Jermaine Samuels dunks the ball during the second half.
Getty Images

On the other end of the floor, Sanogo found himself frequently on more mobile forward Jermaine Samuels, who torched him for 19 points and 11 rebounds. This game was about the other guys for Villanova. In addition to Samuels, Brandon Slater had 15 points after sinking the game-winning free throws against St. John’s in the final seconds the previous night. Co-stars Collin Gillespie and Justin Moore scored just 12 points between them, although Gillespie did have 10 assists and one turnover in adeptly dealing with the Connecticut pressure. 

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Tyrese Martin led the Huskies with 19 points and six rebounds and R.J. Cole added 11 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. Martin did have a chance at the buzzer after Gillespie missed a free throw, but his heave just inside of halfcourt was off to the left. 

Villanova entered the contest with a game plan of probing the paint, but not going all the way. Eighteen of its first 23 shots were 3-point attempts. They made eight of them, enabling them to stay close despite Connecticut’s size and strength advantage. 

Brandon Slater
Brandon Slater finished with 15 points.
Tim Nwachukwu

That wasn’t a surprise. The surprise was the players who were hurting the Huskies. Moore and Gillespie scored just two combined points on 1 of 6 shooting. Slater and Samuels were the Wildcats’ two best players in the opening half, combining for 22 points and hitting five 3-pointers. 

Neither team led by more than five in the half, and it was a one-point Villanova lead at the break. Early in the second half, after Sanogo missed a few bunnies, momentum shifted. Coach Jay Wright’s team went on a 15-6 run, making six of eight field goal attempts to go up 52-44 on Eric Dixon’s 3-pointer with 10:21 left. UConn, meanwhile, went scoreless for 3:20, until Martin’s three-point play snapped the drought.