PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Tristen Newton already had the assist on the go-ahead bucket when he put the finishing touches on UConn's second win of the week since it hit No. 1 in the poll with a pair of free throws.
Newton then waved bye-bye to a Villanova student section that taunted him all game.
“Safe travels to them going back home to the crib,” Newton said with a laugh.
The Huskies headed home the same way they left: as the top team in college basketball.
Alex Karaban hit the decisive 3-pointer for UConn with 2:43 left in the game that settled a fantastic Big East matchup, Newton scored 25 points and the Huskies held off persistent Villanova 66-65 at a packed Wells Fargo Center on Saturday night.
“This is a manhood test every time you step on the court in the Big East,” coach Dan Hurley said. “It's UFC-type (games). It's steel cage. You could throw elbows, it's jiu-jitsu, it's Muay Thai, it's everything.”
Cam Spencer had 14 points for the Huskies (17-2, 7-1 Big East), who are 2-0 since they were voted No. 1 the AP Top 25 in the regular season for the first time since they spent four weeks there in the second half of the 2008-09 season, which ended with the Huskies reaching the Final Four.
But these Huskies are the reigning national champions and are trying to become the first program to win back-to-back titles since Florida in 2006-07. They’ve won seven straight games and won’t play against a ranked team -- as of this week’s poll -- until Feb. 17 against No. 17 Marquette. That’s six more games for the Huskies to fatten their record and be on pace for an 11th regular-season Big East championship
The best in the Big East was a title that used to belong to Villanova.
With Hall of Fame coach Jay Wright in the house, the Wildcats (11-7, 4-3) put up a fight in front of nearly 20,000 fans at their NBA off-campus home, where three national championship banners hang in the rafters.
The Wildcats rallied, tied, kept it close -- only for the Huskies to always get that breathing-room bucket. Tyler Burton hit a 3 for a 42-38 lead. Newton hit a pair of 3s that made it 51-42. The Wildcats kept coming, even after Karaban’s 3 made it 61-58.
Justin Moore made it 62-60 but the Huskies sealed the win from the line.
Newton had just six points at the break before going for 19 in the second half. He finished 8 of 17 from the floor and added six rebounds.
Karaban broke down the game when Newton joined him at a press conference table.
“Enough about me, ” Karaban said. “Here’s the star.”
Moore and TJ Bamba each scored 15 points for the Wildcats.
Under second-year coach Kyle Neptune, the Wildcats are still very much a work in progress. In Wright’s heyday, the Wildcats might trail or play a close game against a team like UConn, only to rip off eight or nine 3s and go on some game-breaking run for one more blowout win en route to a 25-plus win season.
The Wildcats mostly hang around these days. Some games, it’s enough, such as a two-point win over North Carolina. Sometimes, it’s a 13-point loss to an inferior team like Saint Joseph’s.
NCAA or NIT, who knows?
“I bet there were maybe 20 things we could have done better throughout the game,” Neptune said.
Under Hurley, the Huskies have left no doubt about their place in college basketball. The Huskies have been strengthened by the return of star center Donovan Clingan, who played his second game since he missed five games with a tendon injury in his right foot. The 7-foot-2 sophomore scored six points and grabbed seven rebounds.
Villanova's Mark Armstrong hit a bucket from near midcourt at the horn for the final 66-65 score — one that ended in a backdoor cover. The Huskies were 3½-point favorites, per FanDuel SportsBook.
“It was gut-check win,” Hurley said.
UConn doesn't play again until Jan. 28 against Xavier.
The Wildcats play Wednesday at St. John's.
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