By Owen McCue (@Owen_McCue)
VILLANOVA — There were times pretty recently when Saturday’s result at Finneran Pavilion may have brought some satisfaction to the Villanova women’s basketball program.
A 60-51 loss to No. 6 UConn? Plenty of teams would take it.
That’s not where the Wildcats, currently ranked No. 14 in the country themselves, are at, a dejected Maddy Siegirist at the postgame podium was a visible sign of that.
“I think just understanding what a special opportunity we had today,” Siegrist said of her disappointment. “There wasn’t a time until maybe the last 20 seconds that I didn’t think we were gonna win the game, so that’s tough, but you gotta learn from it and move on.”
It was a packed house Saturday for a Top 25 showdown between UConn and Villanova. (Photo: Owen McCue/CoBL)
VIllanova (23-5, 14-3 Big East) pulled off a road upset over the the Huskies (24-4, 16-1) last season in their only regular-season matchup, snapping the Huskies’ 169 consecutive conference win streak with a 72-69 win. It was the Wildcats’ first over UConn in 18 years. That was followed by a 30-point trouncing in the Big East championship game.
The Wildcats hung with UConn on the road again earlier this season. It was a tie game with two minutes left before a 63-58 UConn win on Jan. 29.
They’d already proven they could hang. Saturday was an opportunity to knock off the Huskies for the second time in two seasons and even up the Big East Conference standings in the process in front of the second women’s sellout crowd in program history and first since 2004.
“This environment was conducive for VIllanova’s kids to feel like, ‘We should be the favorites in this game,’” UConn coach Geno Auriema said. “We’re at home. We’re a really good team and we beat them last year, we played them tough at their place.”
“They’re a helluva team, and they’re gonna be a helluva team for a long, long time.”
UConn led 19-15 at the end of the first quarter and 28-26 at halftime. Siegrist (21 points) tied the game 33-33 with 5:45 left in the third quarter and the Wildcats kept things tight before a bucket by Caroine Ducharme gave the Huskies a five-point lead heading to the fourth.
Lou Lopez Senechal (22 points) scored the first five of the fourth, canning a triple with 8:56 to go, to put UConn ahead 49-39. The Huskies extended their lead to 12 with 7:43 left. Nova's Bella Runyan nailed a jumper and took a charge on the other end to keep the game from getting away ... and then things got interesting.
The Wildcats reeled off 10 straight points, pulling within two, 52-50, with 3:56 to play on a pull-up jumper by sophomore guard Lucy Olsen, who had 13 in the game. Runyan followed her with nine.
“We were advancing a little bit quicker, getting some looks,” Villanova coach Denise Dillon said. “It’s not thinking. A lot of times you’re relying on Maddy just to bail us out when other players are getting looks they’re thinking about it. Transition-wise, that’s been one of our strengths this year. UConn takes it away, but we were able to get some numbers there, make some extra passes and knock down shots at that point.”
That’s as far as the comeback came as Olsen’s jumper marked the Wildcats’ final field goal of the game. Aaliyah Edwards (13 points, 14 rebounds) answered with a layup and after Siegrist spilt a pair of free throws a high-arching floater from Lopez Senechal put UConn ahead 56-51 with 1:02 to play.
After Olsen missed a pair of free throws on the other end and Lopez Senchal hit a pair of her own to extend the lead to 58-51 with 46 seconds to play the comeback effort was dead.
“I just tried to put some arc to it because the defender came by, but I didn’t think too much about it to be honest. I just tried to make a shot,” Lopez Senechal said of the floater.
“Just try to keep our composure and try to stay mature,” she said of the Huskies’ tough defensive stretch to finish the game.
Villanova needed a few more shots to go from beyond the 3-point line (5-of-25) and hurt itself at the foul line (6-of-12), especially in the fourth when the Wildcats made just two of their six attempts.
Siegirst, the nation’s leading scorer (29.4 ppg), scored 25 in the Jan. 29 loss. She got out to a hot start with 10 points in the first quarter on 5-of-7 shooting Saturday, but Edwards and company made sure everything came difficult after that.
She finished 8-of-22 from the floor, going 3-for-15 in the final three quarters and 1-for-6 in the fourth.
“We certainly played against her long enough and watched her do the things she does,” Auriema said. “You have to get a little bit of help when you’re playing against a player like that because if you crowd her too much then she gets in the lane, then ends up getting a bucket and free throws. If you play off too much, she’s a good enough 3-point shooter that she can make just enough of those. And the thing about Maddy that’s really, really difficult is she’s kind of relentless when the ball gets on the glass.
“There’s a lot you have to do and we just took our chances. We’re not gonna help off of her. We’re gonna keep a body on her as close to as possible the entire game and whatever she gets, she gets”
It’s unlikely the Huskies will drop enough games for the Wildcats to make up the two-game difference in the Big East standings in their last three games. Likely to finish the regular season as the second best team in the Big East, they’ll have to make their way to the conference championship game for another shot at the Huskies.
“The expectation has to be there of winning such games (like Saturday),” Dillon said. “Instead of, at their place, it was. ‘Ah yea, we played with them and we showed what we could do.’ No, that has to be the switch, that has to be the shift for this particular team, an expectation. It can’t just be a false sense of confidence. It has to be knowing you prepared and trained to win these game because they’re not stopping.”
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