The wins flowed freely for Villanova last season as usual, 36 of them. The final one over Michigan brought along a national championship, the Wildcats’ second in three years. But four players graduated to the NBA and took 71 percent of the scoring and 59 percent of the rebounding with them.
Villanova lost five times or less in each of the past five seasons, including four times in each of the past two. Now the program was getting to see how the other half lived, losing four times in the first 12 games. The Wildcats hadn’t dropped back-to-back games since 2013. Now they had done it twice, knocking the defending champs out of the national rankings.
This team was the preseason favorite to win the Big East. But the returnees and the newcomers still looked quite capable in the second half of Saturday’s nonconference finale against UConn with 16,027 fans watching at the Garden. The Wildcats smashed apart a tight game by scoring 19 consecutive points on the way to an 81-58 victory that snapped the latest two-game skid.
“We’ve got a lot of new guys,” coach Jay Wright said. “We’ve got a lot of challenges within our team that every team has. We’ve just been so blessed over the last five years. We’ve had challenges. You just don’t see them in wins and losses. It’s just part of the journey. We have to take maybe a more difficult journey this year, but we’re going to enjoy it.”
This journey has included defeats against Michigan, Furman, Penn and No. 1 Kansas.
Jahvon Quinerly, a freshman point guard from Hackensack, New Jersey, who first committed to Arizona, played less than a minute in Villanova’s first loss to Penn since 2002. He created a controversy afterward on Instagram: “Was my 2nd choice for a reason.”
Quinerly hit “delete” in a hurry. Too late. He later apologized on Twitter, writing that he learned a lesson about “the power and reach of social media.”
He played a season-high 25:11 off the bench against UConn because he inadvertently gave starting point guard Collin Gillespie a concussion during practice Thursday. Quinerly contributed 10 points and four assists. He said, “I was just waiting for my opportunity.”
Forward Eric Paschall paced the Wildcats with 21 points and a fellow redshirt senior, guard Phil Booth, had 18 points, seven rebounds and seven assists.
Connecticut, which is also now 9-4, received 18 points from Christian Vital. It led by one three minutes into the second half. But Joe Cremo, a grad transfer from UAlbany, nailed a three for Villanova. That triggered the 19-0 distance run.
Cremo capped it with his third three in the burst, burying it from the left corner to make it 54-36 with 10:39 left.
The Huskies went 0-for-6 with six turnovers during the drought. They ended up shooting 32.1 percent in the second half.
“Obviously, a really brutal last 17 minutes by us,” new UConn coach Dan Hurley said.
It was 30-30 at halftime. Villanova had 12 turnovers. Only seven more came over the final 20 minutes. The Wildcats also owned the boards overall, 35-21.
“We just think about becoming the best Villanova basketball team we can be by the end of the year,” Paschall said, “and I think today was a good step in that direction.”