Jermaine Samuels prides himself on doing a lot of the little things for Villanova at the defensive end and with rebounding and getting his teammates involved in the offense.
But on Saturday, Samuels did some big things to help the 14th-ranked Wildcats come from behind against pesky Connecticut, scoring eight of his season-high 19 points in the final 4 minutes, 16 seconds to help his team to a 61-55 victory over the Huskies before a crowd of 16,723 at Wells Fargo Center.
Samuels converted a conventional three-point play to give the Cats (14-3) the lead for good and later knocked down his fourth three-point basket of the game. Freshman Jeremiah Robinson-Earl secured the victory by converting three 1-and-1 situations down the stretch, two of them in the final 19.7 seconds.
Before the late heroics, the Wildcats had their share of problems controlling the quick guards of the Huskies (10-7). The visitors scored on 10 consecutive possessions in the first eight minutes to take a 41-35 lead but, after a TV timeout, ‘Nova coach Jay Wright went to a zone defense for one of the few times this season to slow them down.
UConn scored just two points over the next 4 ½ minutes. Meanwhile, Collin Gillespie scored every point in an 8-2 run that enabled the Wildcats to tie the game and, after falling behind by five, Villanova hit some key shots and got the necessary defensive stops to put it on top.
Samuels shot 6-for-10, including 4-for-6 from three, and also contributed five rebounds and three steals. Gillespie, who went 26 minutes before scoring his first points, finished with 12 points, and Robinson-Earl chipped in with 11 and seven rebounds.
Christian Vital led UConn with 13 points and eight rebounds.
The Villanova defense forced 17 turnovers and scored a season-high-tying 23 points off the miscues, held the Huskies to 2 of 15 shooting from three-point territory and gave up just three free throws, earning a 12-3 advantage at the line.
The Wildcats shot 47.8% from three but just 8 of 26 (30.8%) from inside the arc. They also were outrebounded, 35-23.
“They were getting the matchups they wanted so that’s why we tried zone,” Wright said. “We were kind of desperate at that point. It was a six-point game when we went to zone. We practice it all the time, just in case we need it. But we’re not really a zone team. We don’t want to go to it. Usually when we go to it, we’re in trouble. So our guys did a really good job in it.”
“That’s just my teammates having trust in me, and also me just reading and making certain decisions that I see in the situations and trying to stay aggressive at all times as well,” Samuels said, speaking of his offense.
“I thought we did a great job guarding their guard post-ups,” said UConn coach Dan Hurley. “I thought we won a lot of 1-on-1 battles off the dribble. Obviously Samuels’ three-point shooting and Gillespie, the way he holds up the standard of their program with his leadership and toughness, it’s impressive.”
The Wildcats won for the 10th time in their last 11 games, once again doing just enough to leave the arena with the victory. Their last seven wins have come by a total of 44 points, or 6.3 per game, with only one (80-66 over Georgetown) by double digits. “We’re just finding our way,” Wright said. “We’ve got young guys that are learning how to play. We’ve got juniors that are learning to be go-to guys.”
Robinson-Earl has been working hard all season against the opponent’s big men, most of whom are older and stronger than he is. That results sometimes in missed layups, but he’s hanging in there. “You might get your shot blocked, you might miss some shots, but you’ve got to keep a great attitude going into those games knowing you’re playing against bigger, longer, tougher guys,” he said. “So just keeping a great attitude is so key in those situations.