PHILADELPHIA– It wasn’t in the gameplan for Villanova to go inside against UConn, but thanks to two quick fouls to start the first half from UConn bigs Adama Sanogo and Isaiah Whaley, the Wildcats had no other choice but to go down low and feed Eric Dixon.
Once they did that, they were cooking with gas.
Dixon “beasted and feasted” (as the great Chris Smoove would say) his was to 24 points and 12 rebounds in the Wildcats 85-74 win over the UConn Huskies at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday afternoon.
UConn being without Sanogo for a large chunk of the first half definitely showed on both the offensive and defensive side. Looking offensively, Sanogo is averaging 15 points a game. On the defensive side, without him and Whaley, UConn went to seldom-used Samson Johnson. That’s not a knock on Johnson, but he weighs around 200 lbs while Eric Dixon weighs roughly 255 lbs. That’s a mismatch so large that the WBO might have to call off a fight between the two.
“Getting Sanogo in foul trouble wasn’t a plan but when it happened it was a positive for us,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “He’s a force and you could see at the start of the second half they started going to him and it was tough to stop him.”
Uncharacteristically, Villanova attempted 11 three-pointers on Saturday, making six of them.
Part of that was UConn sealing the 3-point line, part of it was a good game from Dixon.
“We have three-point shooters and we like to shoot threes,” Wright said. “But they were so aggressive on the perimeter and they’re great at defending the three that it did open it up for Eric 1-on-1 inside and it did open it up for some driving opportunities because they did take away our threes, if they do that and you don’t have someone like Eric, you’re in trouble.”
“The problem when you play them is they make so few mistakes then as soon as you make half a mistake, it’s a basket, or they cut you, or they drive you,” UConn head coach Dan Hurley said. “Every time we made a micro mistake it turned into a cut or the guy gets the edge or Dixon seals his guy or we take a shot-fake and a step through, you got to have an incredible level of discipline and physicality when you play against these guys, the focal point was to take the three-point line away which we did, but we lost too many one-on-one battles.”
Dixon is yet another Villanova basketball project that’s starting to flourish in Year 3. He redshirted his freshman 2019-20 season, was a reserve last year, and now in his third year, he’s seeing the fruits of his labor.
“Last year there were a lot of days in practice where Jeremiah Robinson-Earl couldn’t deal with him,” Wright said. “He was in that learning process but we saw it last year continuing and continuing, he’s got so much more in him it’s amazing.”
“I’m just seeing guys come through and do it,” Dixon said. “The guys that came before me have all done it, they’ve gutted it out. I’ve seen them work at it, didn’t happen overnight for Jeremiah, didn’t happen overnight for Jermaine or [Collin Gillespie] or anybody else, I didn’t expect it to be that way, just come back tomorrow and get better again.”
Perhaps a bigger story than the game itself is the health of Gillespie. In the second half, UConn guard Jordan Hawkins drained a three and while defending the shot attempt, Gillespie landed right on his foot, falling down in a heap of pain, clutching his right ankle. He had to be carried off by Jay Wright and a trainer and went straight to the locker room. He later came back out to the bench, but wouldn’t return to the game.
Wright said Gillespie will get an X-Ray on his right ankle.
For a team that was already down Justin Moore due to a sprained ankle, the Wildcats had to close the game out, down their top two guards and top two scorers.
“We still had a ton of game left, we wanted to show him we had his back.” Villanova guard Caleb Daniels said.
Up next for Villanova is a matchup against St. John’s at Madison Square Garden on tuesday night at 8:30.
The Wildcats won the first matchup a week ago by a final score of 73-62 at the Finneran Pavilion.