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UConn, ’Nova bring good old days back

Jay Wright had been around the Big East long enough. He knew when his team built an early lead Saturday night that Connecticut wasn’t about to cower in the corner and wither away like some weakling on the playground. Villanova arrived expecting some back-alley brawl, just like the good old days.

You can take UConn out of the Big East, but it takes awhile to take the Big East out of UConn. The Huskies are a scrappy, resourceful bunch. They’ve had something to prove in the three years since they won a national championship under Jim Calhoun. So, yes, they were plenty game for a knock-down, drag-out with ’Nova before 19,290 fans in First Niagara Center.

Lower scores across the Round of 32 weren’t some strange coincidence Saturday. Scoring has become difficult because teams are making a bigger commitment to defense. It comes down to effort. The alternative is going home. The NCAA Tournament doesn’t just measure the best basketball teams. It’s often a test of wills.

And that goes to the heart of the Big East.

The only uncertainty as the clock ticked past midnight was whether ’Nova or UConn would land the last haymaker. Villanova stormed out of the locker room and built a 10-point lead, and UConn answered with a 26-10 run into the second half. Nova came back and hit three three-pointers to take the lead.

Sure enough, UConn answered with a 16-3 run for a 51-40 advantage with about nine minutes remaining. Certainly, the Huskies didn’t believe a trip to the Sweet 16 was locked up, either. Villanova knew it was in trouble when Shabazz Napier made three consecutive three-pointers to give UConn a 54-43 lead with about six minutes left.

Napier staggered ’Nova with the threes and delivered a critical blow when he drove the lane for a twisting, turning layup that bounced high and soft off the glass. It gave UConn a nine-point lead with just more than two minutes remaining, which was too much for Villanova to overcome.

UConn 77, Villanova 65. The game was closer than the score indicated.

The two teams left fans pining for the old Big East, fantasizing about the schools that left taking a step back, coming to their senses and putting the conference back together for basketball’s sake. Villanova and UConn made it clear just how well – and just how hard – Big East teams play when matched up against one another.

If Syracuse had given the same effort their former conference partners did, maybe it wouldn’t be home sulking over the loss to Dayton. The game that followed provided all the evidence needed. The Orange didn’t show up with the same vigor. They didn’t compete and ended up getting clipped.

In the first 10 minutes Saturday, it seemed UConn wasn’t ready to play. Villanova provided a good smack to the head, reminding UConn that it could get embarrassed. The Huskies took off on a 16-2 tear and held ’Nova to one field goal, a three-pointer just before the halftime buzzer, in the final 11½ minutes.

See, that’s how winning teams respond.

The tournament was decorated, or decimated, with bracket-busting upsets in the first two days. Who had Dayton beating Ohio State? OK, who had Dayton beating Syracuse in the first half of the double-header Saturday night? But that can happen when a team can’t put the ball in the ocean. Syracuse missed all 10 attempts from three-point range.

And that’s why they took a long, quiet ride bus ride down the Thruway, joining ACC power Duke among the mighty who have fallen in the NCAAs.

The UConn-Nova game had an entirely different feel. They remain two proven heavyweights. Both teams took their turns in the power conference before football, money and egos led to the dismantling of a great conference. For one night, the Huskies and Wildcats made a visit to yesteryear.

Villanova, a No. 2 seed, lost only four games all season. Two came against Creighton, which finished 26-7 and earned a third seed. The Wildcats were buried in both games after failing to contain Doug McDermott. Their other losses were to Syracuse, which was undefeated at the time, and Seton Hall in the Big East tournament.

Each loss had a way of setting ’Nova straight. They won five straight after the Syracuse game. Their response to the Creighton blowouts was a pair of six-game winning streaks. They were hoping for a similar surge to come from the Seton Hall loss. Another six-game winning streak would lead them to their first national championship since 1985 under Rollie Massimino.

UConn was coming from a different angle. The Huskies senior leaders had one NCAA tournament game, a loss in 2012, to show for their careers since winning the title as freshmen under Jim Calhoun. They were banned last year for a poor academic performance rating. Calhoun retired and was replaced by Kevin Ollie.

Two teams had the same goal Saturday, so they dropped the gloves. Connecticut was left standing Saturday. The Huskies are headed for the Sweet 16 in Madison Square Garden, where the Big East held its conference tournament. They should feel at home.