Owen McCue (@Owen_McCue)
VILLANOVA — Maddie Siegrist and Brooke Mullin sat down at the podium in the media room at Finneran Pavilion on Friday afternoon in the same spot they usually do after games — with the exception of a few changes.
The typical Villanova backdrop behind them was replaced with March Madness logos. Name cards were placed on a podium that was raised a few feet higher than normal.
The No. 4 seed Wildcats will open the NCAA Tournament at home against No. 13 Cleveland State on Saturday at 5 p.m. While there’s a familiar feel to playing on their home court, there are also plenty of reminders around the facility — banners, brackets, logos on the floor — that the stakes have been raised.
“Just walking in now, it’s kind of hitting me,” Mullin said. “We just walked in from the Pavillion and it takes you back a second, but it’s really exciting to be here.”
Villanova (28-6) broke a three-year absence from the NCAA Tournament last season when it upset sixth-seeded BYU as an 11th-seed. Following a second-round loss to host Michigan, the Wildcats committed to trying to put themselves in position for a deep tournament run this offseason.
“After finishing last season, you could see the sign of disappointment in our team,” Dillon said. “Heading out, excitement about being in the tournament, winning that first game, but definite disappointment with losing to Michigan.
“And you appreciate that as a coach. Summer came around, we had the full team back. Knowing what the roster looked like, from that point they really figured things out.”
The Wildcats earned the program’s highest seed since 2003, giving themselves a chance at two home games starting against the Vikings (31-3) on Saturday.
“It’s so exciting,” Siegrist said. “This is something we really wanted all year. I’m glad we get to host.”
Cleveland State won the Horizon League tournament to book its first tournament appearance since 2010 and would like to flip the script on Villanova this season as a double-digit seed.
The Vikings are strong on both ends of the floor, ranking 38th in the country in scoring (74.5 ppg) and 30th in scoring defense (57.4 ppg), also holding opponents to 35.3 percent shooting from the field, which ranks 10th in the country.
“They’re a great team,” Siegrist said. “Anybody who wins their conference tournament, to be able to win that many games in a row is really impressive. Obviously, they have a really strong resume, so we’re prepared for them and we’re getting ready, but just do what we do best. On the defensive end of the floor try to be disruptive and then execute on offense.”
Junior guard 5-10 Destiny Leo (17.7 ppg) leads the way for Cleveland State along with senior forwards Brittni Moore (12.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and Amele Ngwafang (9.6 ppg, 7.7 rpg).
The trio are adept at getting to the free throw line. Leo and Ngwafang both average more than five attempts from the line per game, while Moore averages about four. As a team, the Vikings make more than 17 free throws per contest, which ranks second in the country.
“I think it’s just an emphasis on focus,” Mullin said of avoiding giving Cleveland State free trips. “Focus on the personnel and not bailing out the person you’re guarding. Staying down on defense and just being disciplined.”
The Wildcats counter with the nation’s second leading scorer Siegrist (28.9 ppg), who shoots 52 percent from the floor and also grabs a team-best 9.3 rebounds per game. Sophomore Lucy Olsen (12.1 ppg) has been the team’s top secondary threat with junior wing Maddie Burke (7.5 ppg), sophomore forward Christina Dalce (7.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg) and Mullin (3.4 ppg), a senior guard from Neshaminy, joining them in the starting lineup.
“Maddy had a tremendous year last year, so it was like, ‘Wow, how are we going to match that? Not only has she matched it, she’s brought it another level and with those supporting members doing just the same,” Dillon said. “Improving from last year, wanting more responsibility on the floor.”
Freshman 6-1 forward Megan Olbrys injured her hand in practice on Monday, hurting the team’s frontcourt depth, though Dillon noted junior guard Bella Runyan and sophomore guard Kaitlyn Orihel aren’t afraid to compete down low.
It’s been a special season for the Wildcats on the Main Line, continuing the momentum from last season’s tournament run and ascending to one of the top teams in the country.
They’ve built up quite a following that would continue to grow with a win on Saturday as the only City 6 team taking part of March Madness this year.
“It’s been incredible,” Siegrist said. “The support over my five years at Villanova, it’s been like this the whole time. But just to see the amount of attention that our team is getting it’s just so exciting to be a part of and I think it’s well deserved. We worked really, really hard.”
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