Owen McCue (@Owen_McCue)
Villanova’s Kaitlyn Orihel wasn’t fazed by the moment of her NCAA Tournament debut as a freshman last season. The bigger the game, the better the Archbishop Wood product plays — and she’d played in plenty of big ones for arriving on the Main Line with the Vikings.
“I think definitely being in those big moments, those big scenarios definitely helps prepare you for the higher level,” Orihel said.
After reaching double figures in an upset win over BYU in the first round last season, Orihel had another strong outing in Saturday’s NCAA Tournament opener against Cleveland State.
Senior Maddy Siegrist led the fourth-seeded Wildcats with 35 points and junior Bella Runyan added 13 points and five assists off the bench, while Orihel added nine, sparking her team early before Villanova rolled to a 76-69 win over the 14th-seeded Vikings at Finneran Pavilion. The Wildcats play No. 12 Florida Gulf Coast in the second round on Monday.
Villanova sophomore Kaitlyn Oriehl sparked her team with three first-half threes on Saturday. (Photo: Jack Verdeur/CoBL File)
“It’s definitely just trust in my teammates," Orihel said of her hot start. "When they pass me the ball, they trust me to make those shots and once we start making shots on the outside, me or anyone, it opens things up in the post. It works hand and hand with each other.”
The Wildcats’ offense struggled out of the gate. Siegrist started her team’s scoring 29 seconds into the game, but Villanova didn't record another bucket until she banked in a shot with the shot clock winding down at the 4:58 mark.
The four-and-a-half-minute scoring drought was followed by an offensive explosion for the Wildcats featuring a couple of big Orihel shots. Orihel dropped in her first three for a 12-7 lead as Villanova began to hits its stride.
The Wildcats were on fire by her second triple with 46 seconds left the first quarter, which put her team up double digits for the first time. Siegrist added another before the end of the period for a 16-1 run that made it 19-7 ‘Nova after 10 minutes.
“You knew Maddy and Lucy (Olsen) would find the ball, that they would find open spots to get shots and that did work in our favor with Maddy,” Villanova coach Denise Dillon said. “But it was really good that the other players really zoned in on what needed to get done to get open looks. Kaitlyn Orihel really started that off off the bench, making that corner jumper.”
“She was just ready to get in there and let it fly,” Dillon added.
Orihel, who averages 3.0 ppg, scored more than nine on just two other occasions this season. She took advantage of her open looks Saturday and was quite demonstrative, making sure to celebrate each make — and each of her teammates’ makes as well. The Wildcats visibly fed off her energy as momentum rolled into a 42-21 halftime lead.
Orihel added another triple in the second quarter to push the lead to 17 and made a crosscourt pass for an assist on a Bella Runyan to make it 19 before the Wildcats went into the half up 21. That was it for her scoring but the damage had already been done as Villanova cruised in the second half.
“We’ve grown to be best friends, so when she is going off it just hypes me even more,” said Runyan, who knocked down three triples of her own. “I think we were feeding off of each other’s energy tonight, and it was just a really cool feeling the moments we had assisting each other today.”
Siegrist, who came in as the country’s leading scorer at 29.8 ppg, outscored the Vikings by herself in the first half with 22 points. Her game-high 35 came on 15-of-28 shooting. The perimeter shooting certainly opened things up inside for the forward.
She now has 1,019 points on the season, becoming the fifth Division I women’s player in history to surpass 1,000 points in a season. She also broke the 20-point mark for the 35th time this season, tying the record set by former Washington start Kelsey Plum.
“She’s a great player, so just to have your name in the same category as someone like that is such an honor,” Siegrist said.
Villanova hasn’t been to the Sweet 16 since the program’s Elite Eight run in 2003. They have the chance to do that Monday against FGCU.
The Wildcats have played in big games all season, including three against national power UConn. Orihel is confident she and her teammates will continue to be unfazed by the big moments however long this tournament run goes.
“We’ve seen everything that we’ll face coming into the tournament,” Orihel said. “And we say that to each other. There’s nothing that we’ll see that we haven’t faced before. It just depends what day we’ll see it and we’ll prepare accordingly.”
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