STORRS – UConn and Villanova, both one-time Big East powerhouses that first played in 1941, will square off Saturday in Hartford for the 65th time. A sellout is expected.
The rivalry was born out of frustration. The Wildcats weren’t just beating the Huskies, they were hitting them where they lived.
John Pinone, from South Catholic-Hartford, played for Villanova from 1979-83. Harold Jensen from Trumbull and Harold Pressley from St. Bernard-Montville were on Villanova’s 1985 championship team. With both schools in the Big East beginning in 1981, the Wildcats were clobbering UConn again and again — 17 out of 18.
“At that time, Connecticut was spitting out five, six, seven legitimate Division I players a year,” said Pinone, now the coach at Cromwell High. “The Big East was in its infancy. I was the local kid who went to Villanova, so it was always a little bit more for me, pumped up a little bit more for me to play against UConn.”
In 1986, when Jim Calhoun came to Storrs, one of his first tasks was to stop the migration of talent out of the state to places like Villanova.
“It was an evolutionary time,” Calhoun said. “UConn was in the Big East, but we weren’t really a ‘Big East school.’ Syracuse, Villanova had been to the Final Four, Villanova was a Big Five school and all of that.”
UConn had beaten Villanova in 1982 on a last-second put-back by Karl Hobbs with Pinone defending.
“We beat them seven out of eight or eight out of nine,” said Pinone, who will be at the UConn-Villanova game at the XL Center at noon. “And it still bothers me the one we didn’t win. Still bothers me. I don’t let it go very easy.”
Then UConn lost the next 14 games to coach Rollie Massimino’s Wildcats.
“I remember when I first took the job,” Calhoun said, “I met Rollie, I knew him a little bit but not very well, and he told me how much he loved Villanova and the Big East. And I said, ‘You know, I have a feeling you’re not going to like me,’ and that didn’t go over as well as I would have liked.”
By 1989, UConn was getting the best Connecticut players. One of them, Murray Williams from Torrington, took an inbounds pass with six seconds left and, as Calhoun had instructed, dashed right to the basket, scoring to give the Huskies a 57-55 victory before 16,016 at the Civic Center, as the building was then known, to end the losing streak against Villanova. “I didn’t have time to think about it,” Williams said that night. “I saw a golden opportunity and I said, ‘Do it.’”
As did UConn — conference and national championships began to follow. The Huskies won 26 of the last 38 against Villanova before the conference broke up in 2013 — but twice, in 1995 and 2006, UConn was ranked No.1 and lost.
Roles have reversed again. Villanova (17-1), national champ in 2016, is ranked No. 1 in the country, representing the new Big East, and UConn (10-8) is in the American Athletic Conference and fighting for relevance.
“So many great games, and usually we were on the wrong end,” said Jay Wright, who was Massimino’s assistant in the 1980s and has been Villanova’s head coach since 2001. “One time we beat them when they were No. 1 and we beat them at Wells Fargo Center [in 2006] and we had to go back up there and play them [13 days later], and it was an incredible game that they beat us.
“In the semifinals at The Garden, we played great against them and [Ben Gordon] hit a shot on the right wing to beat us with like three seconds left. A lot of great games.”
UConn coach Kevin Ollie has memories good and bad, a loss to ’Nova during his senior season when the Huskies were ranked first, and weeks later in the Big East final in 1995, the last game he played in the Big East. As an assistant coach, Ollie was in Philadelphia when Shabazz Napier beat the Wildcats with a 3-pointer in 2012, and as coach he guided the Huskies, the No. 7 seed, to a victory over No. 2 Villanova in the 2014 East Regional.
For the Huskies to make more history, it will take a supreme effort. The Wildcats’ offense is potent, averaging 88.3 points, and shooting 42.2 percent on 3-pointers.
“They’re the most disciplined team we’ll face,” Ollie said. “They’ve got one of the most prolific point guards in the country (Jalen Brunson) running the show. You can’t key on one guy, [Wright] gets all those guys involved, they’re very versatile. It’s a great test for us, our guys are up for the opportunity.”
UConn is coming off an abysmal performance, a 73-49 loss at Memphis in which one of its top players, Terry Larrier, had to sit out with recurring headaches. His status for Villanova will be determined at game time.
“If he can’t play, we’ll have to gut one out for our brother,” said Jalen Adams, the Huskies’ top scorer. “When you play the No.1 team, you don’t really think about all the other stuff. Everything goes out the window. You just lock in on that team. You don’t worry about aches and injuries, you’re just excited to play. That’s our team right now.”
Said Christian Vital: “They’re No. 1. This could be a whole boost to our confidence, to our season, to everything we have going on right now. So it would be foolish not to care about [ranking], not focus on it but understand there’s something special that could be done if we do knock off No. 1, especially at home.”
So the renewal of the UConn-Villanova rivalry is retro in more ways than one. Another UConn team, in another evolutionary time, is trying to remake its reputation, electrify the fan base, against all the Wildcats represent. This game begins a three-year series that continues at Madison Square Garden and concludes in Philadelphia.
“The biggest thing we need is rivals,” Calhoun said. “We can make all these [AAC] schools rivals, but they’re not there yet. I remember the Georgetown [nonconference] game a couple of years ago, they were around .500 and we were around .500, but it was sold out and the place was electric. We need to get as much electricity in that building as we can.”
The renewal of the UConn-Villanova rivalry brings back memories, and offers an opportunity for the Huskies to make history.
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