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Loss to Butler hurts Villanova women's tournament chances

02/17/2024, 9:45pm EST
By Finn Courtney

By Finn Courtney (@finncourtney_)

VILLANOVA — The Villanova women’s basketball team doesn't have time on its side. Late in the season, the Wildcats are on the bubble, running out of opportunities to polish their NCAA Tournament resume.

The Wildcats were on the outside looking in on the projected tournament field coming into Saturday’s Big East game against Butler — as speculated in ESPN’s latest Bracketology.

A 55-52 upset loss to the Bulldogs at Finneran Pavilion didn’t help the chances of a team trying to get the program, coming off a Sweet 16 run, back to a third straight tournament.

“Tough one to give up, especially here at home, gotta give Butler credit, they came in here ready, they played their game much better than we did and took advantage,” Villanova head coach Denise Dillon said.

Villanova junior forward Christina Dalce matched a career-high with seven block Saturday. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL File)

Villanova (16-9, 9-5 Big East) entered on a three-game win streak following a Jan. 31 loss to UConn. The Wildcats earned a road win over Butler (12-13, 4-10) during a six-game win streak in mid-January.

However, Villanoa looked out of sync on the offensive end throughout the contest, including during an 11-0 Butler run to start the second quarter that sent the Bulldogs into halftime with a 31-25 lead. The Wildcats’ six-minute scoreless stretch in the third put them in a nine-point hole they could not claw out of come crunch time.

Butler shot just 38.9 percent from the floor but held the Wildcats to a 35.6 percent shooting day to knock off the Big East’s third place team.

“They did a nice job playing space and switching screens, they did a really good job disrupting us there,” Dillon said. “We were just asking for our players to keep their heads up, find the open person [but] a little bit out of rhythm. Not only were they a natural shot, but just not in the flow so we weren’t knocking down anything.”

Wildcats junior Lucy Olsen finished with a game-high 21 points on 8-of-21 shooting, including 2-of-8 from 3-point range. Senior Bella Runyan added nine points (4-of-9) and six assists.

Junior forward Christina Dalce scored seven points and added 14 rebounds along with matching a career-high with seven blocks. 

“[Lucy] has the green light, it’s a big thing for her to create for herself and for others,” Dillon said. “I think today, pressing a little bit with things not going our way from the start. Definitely some areas, players were trying to make some things happen as opposed to letting the offense come and realizing there was still significant time left in the game to settle in, but you have nights like that for sure.”

Noticeably absent for Villanova was Zanai Jones (6.4 ppg, 1.9 assists per game). Dillon said the 5-foot-6 guard has an upper body injury and there is no timetable to return. Villanova missed her against Butler, tallying 12 turnovers compared to 11 assists. 

“We don’t know at this point, as you see, it’s tough not having her on the floor, wanting to get the ball out of Lucy’s hands and just rely on her to do so much,” Dillon said. “[Zanai’s] been having a really good year for us, [but we’re] not sure yet.”

Losing Jones for an extended period of time would be a blow to Villanova’s continued hopes of a bid to the NCAA tournament, as junior Kaitlyn Orihel and freshman Maddie Webber looked overmatched in the lead guard role against Butler on Saturday.

Villanova will look to rebound Wednesday against Providence at Finneran Pavilion. The second clash of the season, Villanova suffered a heartbreaking loss against the Friars (11-15, 5-8), overcoming a 15-point deficit and upsetting the Wildcats. 

There are some potential resume boosting opportunities after that with road trips to the top two teams in the league — Creighton (Feb. 24) and UConn (Feb. 28) — before Villanova wraps up the regular season March 3 against DePaul.

Saturday's loss means the Wildcats have even more work to do and even less time to do it.

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