March 21, 2014
BUFFALO, N.Y. - Saturday night at the First Niagara Center will serve up a bit of BIG EAST nostalgia as the third round of NCAA Tournament action commences here. For No. 2 seed Villanova (29-4) that adds up to a clash with No. 7 seed Connecticut (27-8) in a game that will begin at approximately 9:40 p.m. on TBS (Verne Lundquist, Bill Raftery and Allie LaForce).
The first contest of the night features another former BIG EAST member, Syracuse, facing off against Dayton. The Orange exited the BIG EAST to enter the Atlantic Coast Conference this season and UConn is part of the former BIG EAST group that now comprises the American Athletic Conference.
"It's really cool," stated Villanova head coach Jay Wright of the reunion here. "When we got to our hotel the other night, the first person my wife Patty and I ran into was Jim Boeheim and his AD (Dr. Darryl Gross). We had a nice long chat. I saw (Connecticut coach) Kevin (Ollie) for a little bit yesterday and I also spoke to Coach (Jim) Calhoun."
The Huskies and Wildcats last met for the final time as league rivals on Feb. 16, 2013. Villanova grabbed a 70-61 victory in Hartford that helped energize its push for a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Connecticut is led by guards Shabazz Napier (17.4 ppg, .390 accuracy from beyond the 3-point arc) and Ryan Boatright (11.8 ppg, .371 shooter from distance). The Huskies are stingy defensively (.387 defensive field goal percentage) and dangerous from long range (.387).
"They're a great team, well-coached," noted Villanova senior James Bell when asked about Connecticut after the Wildcats' 73-53 second round victory over Milwaukee. "We're pretty familiar with them. It's just another opportunity to play a great team. We haven't focused yet on who we were going to play.
"It's another opportunity for us to do what we do."
In its opening game here, Villanova had to overcome a 4-of-23 effort from beyond the arc to pull away from the Panthers late in the contest. Freshman Kris Jenkins drained 3-of-4 from deep while the rest of the squad was 1-of-19 with Darrun Hilliard the only other Wildcat to sink one.
For a team that averaged 9.0 made triples a game during the regular season that could be an ominous sign. But Wright liked the way his group persevered even as a lid seemed clamped on the basket, particularly in a first half when Villanova mustered only 27 points, one above its season low (set last week in the 64-63 BIG EAST Tournament quarterfinal loss to Seton Hall).
"Milwaukee's defense was outstanding," noted Wright. "Our defense in the first half held us in there until we were able to make some shots and get out in transition in the second half. I'm really proud of our guys - when we weren't making shots they stayed in there and defended and played hard."
The winner of Saturday night's encounter earns a trip next weekend to Madison Square Garden for an East Region semifinal.
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