NEW YORK — Jahvon Quinerly had waited all season to prove he could post solid stats instead of just alarming Instagram captions. He got his chance with an inadvertent whack on a Villanova teammate at practice.
Quinerly's elbow put a knot on Collin Gillespie's head during a drill that sidelined the starter and opened a spot in the rotation.
Quinerly had been benched, committed a social media fail and hardly played like a five-star recruit when he did get a chance for the Wildcats. Against UConn, Quinerly suddenly was a factor in ending a rare Villanova losing streak.
"You feel you can do more all the time," he said.
Quinerly had the steal of the game and scored 10 points in critical minutes, and the national champion Villanova Wildcats avoided their first three-game losing streak in nearly six years with an 81-58 win over Connecticut on Saturday at Madison Square Garden.
"He showed that he's been working at what we do even though he hasn't been playing," coach Jay Wright said.
Quinerly, a star recruit who originally committed to Arizona, has had a baffling freshman season. He struggled to get off the bench and missed a game with an injury. Quinerly played only seconds against Penn and was benched against Kansas days after writing an Instagram post criticizing his own program. He turned social media outbursts into highlight-reel bursts against the Huskies (9-4).
Quinerly quickly deleted an Instagram post that said "Was my 2nd choice for a reason" after the Penn loss. But social media users noticed and Quinerly later apologized on, yes, social media.
"It was a big mistake on my end," he said of the caption.
Wright turned the mistake into a teaching moment.
"I told him, I know that's frustration. I know it's not you," Wright said. "I knew he felt terrible."
Quinerly, who played 24 minutes, shot an airball and threw a pass straight into UConn's hands in the first half that might have earned him a spot on the bench had Gillespie not been out. He hit a 3 in the first half and had the game's spotlight "drive of the game" with a midcourt steal during a 19-0 run that he fed to Phil Booth for an easy basket.
He seemed at ease with the pressure off — when a corner 3 rattled around the rim before it trickled out, Quinerly smiled at the oh-so close attempt.
"I feel like the airball kind of helped me," he said. "I knew that I could keep playing after that. I couldn't let it affect me at all."
Eric Paschall scored 21 points and Booth had 18 for Villanova. The Wildcats (9-4) had been reeling with consecutive losses at college basketball's most renowned venues; against Penn at Philly's Palestra and to No. 1 Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse. The Huskies seemed primed to make it three straight holding a 36-35 lead at the Garden, where the Wildcats celebrated the last two Big East Tournament titles.
Unlike their recent defeats when they wilted down the stretch, Villanova flashed the horsepower of old and unleashed a 19-0 run that sent fans into a frenzy. Joe Cremo hit three 3s during the spurt that made it hard to believe this was the same program that already matched the season loss total from each of the last two seasons.
Cremo stepped into the starting lineup once Quinerly smacked Gillespie during a drill in practice on Thursday. Cremo, a graduate transfer from Albany, made the most of his new role.
The Wildcats hadn't lost three straight since January 2013 against Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Providence in the last season of the old Big East. The Wildcats have won two national titles since then and a loss here or there had seemed more like a minor inconvenience. But after losing four stars from last year's title team to the NBA, Villanova has struggled, though three losses have come to Top 25 teams.
Villanova: Is Quinerly a permanent rotation player or was this a one-game wonder? More games like this one, and Quinerly may be the ball-handling guard who can create from the perimeter the Wildcats need.
UConn: Jalen Adams, who averaged 17.3 points, scored only eight and the Huskies had 17 turnovers.
"When things start going badly, you've got to get more determined," coach Dan Hurley said. "I don't think there's an area where we're necessarily excelling."
Christian Vital hit four 3s and scored 18 points for UConn.
The former Big East rivals wrap up their three-year series with a game next season in Philly.
Villanova: Opens Big East play Jan. 2 at home against DePaul.
UConn: Hits the road to play Jan. 2 at USF in the AAC opener.