Mitchell Northam (@primetimeMitch)
GREENVILLE, S.C. – When Villanova tips off against Miami in the Sweet 16 at Bon Secours Arena on Friday, head coach Denise Dillon obviously doesn’t want her players to overlook their opponent. More than that, she wants her No. 4-seed Wildcats to view the No. 9 Hurricanes as being armed with players similar to some of the best they’ve seen in the Big East.
Do the names Nika Muhl and Aneesa Morrow ring a bell? Those are the names that came to mind for Dillon on Thursday in upstate South Carolina when she was asked about preparing for upset-minded Miami.
“Who to compare? I think you have to go more with some personnel, more player-wise,” Dillon said. “I think some of the pressure that we have seen… (Lucy Olsen) was saying Muhl, which she has faced with that point position, she's going to handle. And then the inside presence of, I'd say, Morrow from DePaul, just how dominant the post action is.”
Denise Dillon (above) was all smiles at Villanova's press conference on Thursday, March 23, a day before the Wildcats face Miami (Fl.) in the Sweet 16. (Photo: Mitchell Northam/CoBL)
Villanova has played Muhl pretty well this season. The UConn guard was an honorable mention AP All-American and the Big East Defensive Player of the Year, but only averaged 1.3 steals per game in three meetings with the Wildcats. And offensively, Muhl averaged just 4.6 points and 6.3 assists compared to 4.3 turnovers per-game.
Morrow, on the other hand, gave the Wildcats real problems. The sophomore forward posted averages of 27 points, 15.6 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. However, Villanova won all three of those meetings with Morrow’s Blue Demons.
Miami isn’t exactly armed with carbon copies of Muhl and Morrow, but treating them as such shows that the Wildcats have the utmost respect for their opponent in the regional semifinal.
“I think we're all aware, Miami is playing their best basketball. This is the right time to be doing that,” Dillon said. “What we know is they're going to pressure us. Their intensity on the defensive end creates a lot of offense for them, so just being prepared for that.”
Indeed, the way Miami upset No. 1 Indiana on Monday was by playing defense that was constant and relentless. Miami slowed the game down and made possessions longer. Indiana attempted just 15 3-pointers, its fifth-lowest total of the season. Miami also won the rebounding battle, 35-29. The Hoosiers’ rebounding total was its third-lowest of the season.
Maddy Siegrist (above) has scored at least 20 points in 36 straight games, a new NCAA record. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
The Wildcats have been one of the best teams in the country this year when it comes to taking care of the basketball. They lead the country in assist-turnover ratio with a 1.64 mark and are third in turnover rate at 13.1%. That carefulness with possessions will have to continue against Miami on Friday.
“We can't let them dictate what we're going to do,” Villanova’s All-American forward Maddy Siegrist said. “We've got to bring it on the defensive end, and I think that's an area we've been pretty consistent all year.”
One thing Villanova has that Indiana didn’t is a player like Siegrist. Yes, Grace Berger and Mackenzie Holmes are talented and have piled up their own accolades, but neither is leading the nation in scoring at 29.2 points per game. Siegrist also leads the country in PER (46.4), win shares (11.3) and field goals made per 40 minutes (12.4).
But Villanova knows it can’t rely solely on its star talent.
The good news is, other players have stepped up recently.
In Villanova’s second-round win over Florida Gulf Coast, Lucy Olsen nearly tallied a triple-double with 23 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists. It was a career-high in scoring for the sophomore and just the second double-double of her career.
“I think that's huge for us,” Siegrist said. “Lucy, she really puts in all the time and all the work, so I couldn't be more happy for her. She really just took advantage of what the defense gave her, and she was confident when she was shooting the ball and she was able to knock down a lot of shots.”
Christina Dalce has really helped the Wildcats out on the defensive end. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Another sophomore who has shined lately is Christina Dalce. Over her last eight games she’s averaging 8.8 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.25 blocks per contest. She’s had 12 games this season with double-digit rebounds, and half of those have come in the last two months for the 6-foot-2 Rutgers Prep product.
“She's learning to bring her personality to the floor, like not trying to be someone different, someone she isn't,” Dillon said of Dalce. “I'm really liking just seeing her growth and maturity and carrying it into her craft on the floor as well.”
For both Miami and Villanova, a return to the Sweet 16 has been a long time coming. The Wildcats haven’t been to this stage since 2003 and the Hurricanes haven’t been here since 1992. It’s just the second Sweet 16 appearance ever for both programs.
“I feel – yes – us taking care of the ball, getting shots on the rim is our greatest strength,” Dillon said. “So, we'll have to see who's a little better at it tomorrow.”
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