Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
VILLANOVA — Like most successful programs, the Villanova women approach winning with a businesslike attitude. A few high-fives, maybe a hip bump or two, and then onto the next one.
But when the Wildcats broke a 20-year streak without making it to the Sweet 16 on Monday night at the Finneran Pavilion, they finally let themselves celebrate — first at midcourt, the whole team flashing ‘V’s’ to the crowd and throng of photographers in front of them, then over with the sizeable Villanova student section which was going bananas under the far basket, the ‘Nova women doing their version of the Lambeau Leap, enveloped by the adoration of their peers.
“[Head coach] Denise [Dillon] is, like, very classy and [...] she tells her team to be classy like that,” junior wing Bella Runyan said. “But today was different.
“We were like ‘Uh, do we go to the crowd? I don’t know.’ But Denise was like, ‘go, go.’ It was fun to finally celebrate, let loose, it was our last game in the Pavilion this year, [to] appreciate the fans and everything.”
“You're not passing that opportunity up,” said Dillon, who recorded her 400th career win with the victory. “You have to enjoy these moments, or you're going to lose the innocence of the game and how much they put into it.
“I'm so glad the girls felt to recognize the students out there and do everything possible. I mean, the fans stayed there in the stands. Yeah, we're going to soak it up as much as we can.”
Villanova's Megan Olbrys (left, windmilling) and Zanai Jones (1) celebrate a 3-pointer during the third quarter of the Wildcats' win. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Yes, for the first time in two decades, the Villanova women are in the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Dillon’s Wildcats, led once again by All-American Maddy Siegrist, shut down a sharpshooting Florida Gulf Coast to roll to a 76-57 win in the second round of March Madness on Monday night at the Finneran Pavilion.
Siegrist, who’s near the tail end of one of the best individual seasons in NCAA Division I women’s basketball history, finished with 31 points as sophomore Lucy Olsen added 23 points and 10 rebounds to lead the way for fourth-seeded Villanova (30-6), which last made the Sweet 16 in 2003.
The Wildcats will face ninth seeded Miami (Fl.), on Friday night in Greenville, South Carolina. The Hurricanes upset one of the No. 1 seeds, Indiana, on Monday night in Bloomington.
Villanova’s last trip to the Elite 8 also came in ‘03, the high-water mark in Harry Perretta’s four decades on the Main Line. The Wildcats’ women have never made a Final Four.
Maddy Siegrist (above) had 31 points to continue one of the best seasons in Division I women's basketball history. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
If Monday night was Siegrist’s last time playing at the Finneran Pavilion, the Wildcats’ star left the crowd of 4,361 with another memory of another outstanding performance. Siegrist’s outing was her 36th consecutive with at least 20 points, setting a new NCAA Division I women’s record, yet another milestone achievement in a season that’s already seen her break all sorts of school, program and Big East barriers.
“I just laugh now,” senior guard Brooke Mullin said. “It’s great to see, it’s great to be a part of. I didn’t even know there was another record for her to break, but she found one, and she’s going to continue to find ones to break.”
Her outing was her 16th of the season with at least 30 points. Just the fifth player in Division I women’s history to score more than 1,000 points in a season, she’s now at 1,050, in position to surpass both Baylor’s Odyssey Sims (1,054 in 2013-14) and Jackie Stiles (1,062 in 2020-11) in her next game, with Kelsey Plums’ record of 1,109 in reach if they can win once more.
Whether this is Siegrist’s actual last home game in a Villanova uniform is still to be determined. Though she’s a sure-fire WNBA draft pick if she goes, Siegrist still has another year of collegiate eligibility remaining due to the blanket COVID season waiver. The availability for her to make money off her Name, Image and Likeness (NIL), combined with most of the Wildcats’ roster slated to return, could provide enough reasons for her to use her extra season of eligibility.
There’s no doubt that her presence has helped elevate the program not just regionally and nationally but at the school itself, the students coming out to support in a way they’d previously only done for the school’s super-successful men’s program.
“I said to Brooke, I was just thinking about when we first got here [...] there weren't that many people in the stands, and it's like a sold out crowd,” Siegrist said. “It's just so exciting and [I’m] just trying to take it all in, just look around because, if this is my last home game, it's a great way to go out.”
Lucy Olsen (above) had a career high with 23 points in Villanova's Round of 32 win. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
The Wildcats set the tone early on Monday night, scoring the game’s first eight points en route to a 26-11 lead after one quarter, getting easy look after easy look, Siegrist scoring 10 points in the opening frame. FGCU’s offense caught fire in the second quarter, the Eagles pulling to within 39-33 by halftime, but that was the last of the visitors’ momentum.
Villanova scored the first nine points of the third quarter to push the lead back to 15, and FGCU never seriously threatened again. The gap reached 20 later in the period, and topped out at 23 with 6:48 left in the fourth.
As good as Siegrist was, Olsen was arguably better, the Spring-Ford product setting a career best in scoring on 9-14 shooting (3-5 3PT), with seven assists and just two turnovers in 38 minutes of work. She was taking the ball to the rim, hitting pull-up jumpers and playing strong defense all game long.
“I think there were just a few more opportunities today, and I just had to take them in order to help my team out in order to win the game,” she said. “I think I just took advantage of the opportunities that were given to me instead of, I don't know, passing them off.”
“I think she’s been great all year, and midway through the season she flipped a switch,” Mullin said. “We all have her back and we know she can make those shots, make those great plays and I think she just took it and ran. She’s an awesome player and a great teammate.”
Mullin (7 points, 5 assists) and Runyan (5 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists) both had critical contributions on a night where sophomore center Christina Dalce (6 points, 6 rebounds) picked up a couple early fouls and spent most of the first half on the bench.
The Wildcats were especially impressive defensively against an FGCU squad that came into the night 33-3 on the season and shooting 37.6% from the 3-point arc, averaging 77 points per game, which had just managed 50 points in the paint against Washington State despite a relatively undersized lineup.
The Eagles managed just 21-of-59 (35.6%) from the floor and 7-of-21 (33.3%) from 3-point range, Villanova winning the rebound battle 42-30 and the turnover battle 14-10.
Denise Dillon (above) is in her third season at Villanova after 17 seasons at Drexel. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“It's really great when we can switch one through five,” Dillon said. “They're a great efficient offensive team who shoots the three and they get to the rim. We're able to switch one through five, and that kept them out of those positions.”
Dillion started pulling her seniors with under four minutes to play, each departing to a loud ovation — none louder than Siegrist’s, when she departed with under two minutes to play, the student section chanting “MVP,” and not for the first time.
They’ll get Tuesday off, Dillon said, getting a chance to rest their bodies while the coaches scout Miami to learn whatever they can about the Hurricanes in a 24-hour period. Wednesday will be teaching the scout, then traveling down to South Carolina to prepare for Friday’s game.
Win, and they’ll face either No. 2 Utah or No. 3 LSU for the right to play in the program’s first Final Four.
“You can't look at anybody's record, what they're seeded, anything like that,” Siegrist said. “Everybody's trying to win, and they're going to do whatever it takes.”
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