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Villanova gets revenge on St. Joe's in WBIT quarterfinal

03/28/2024, 11:15pm EDT
By Josh Verlin

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

VILLANOVA — The scene inside the Finneran Pavilion was all-too-familiar and yet felt plenty strange. 

Villanova and St. Joe’s matching up on the court for the 50th time, Hawks vs. Wildcats in a traditional local battle. Except it wasn’t the Big 5 title at stake — it was the quarterfinals of the Women’s Basketball Invitation Tournament, the NCAA’s new, 32-team postseason tournament for teams that don’t make it to March Madness.

Bella Runyan (32) and her teammates celebrate their WBIT quarterfinal win over St. Joe's. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

Thursday’s contest was the latest game by calendar date played in the Pavilion in its history, which dates back to 1985. The previous record had been a women’s NIT game between Villanova and St. John’s on March 26, 2015, a 63-55 Villanova win. 

It was also the first time that the archrivals have ever played each other multiple times in a season, the first time they matched up outside of the city’s annual series. 

Villanova took advantage of that second chance to get revenge on an earlier-season loss, a career night from Bella Runyan leading the way to a 67-59 win over St. Joe’s.

“Right when we found out that we were playing them, we were like let’s go, revenge game,” Runyan said. “This game is usually [in] November, December, when you’re a completely different team and that’s what you saw tonight, and that’s what we felt going into this game. We’ve learned so much, grown so much since that game, [so we said] let’s get it back.”

The Wildcats (21-12), one of four No. 1 seeds in the 32-team field, will play another No. 1 seed in Penn State (22-12) in a semifinal on Monday night at Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. 

In front of a crowd of 2,415, the Wildcats redeemed themselves from a 73-67 loss to St. Joe’s back on December 9. 

Runyan (above) was 4-of-4 from deep. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

They did so by playing lockdown defense on the Hawks’ talented frontcourt while getting a balanced scoring effort led by Runyan. The 5-foot-11 senior wing tied her career high in scoring with 16 points while going 4-of-4 from downtown, making four triples for the first time in her four years on the Main Line.

“Bella Runyan, we’ve said it for years, she’s our glue, she’s our motor, she’s given us everything she has,” Villanova coach Denise Dillon said. “I’ve always wanted to see her rewarded on the offensive end because her effort on the defensive end, her assists are there, she’s always giving.

“I joked with the team after the game, I said ‘4-for-4 from three, why didn’t you get her more looks?’”

Though she’s got another year of eligibility left to use if she wants it, her post-game comments made it clear that Runyan’s in the final games of her college career.

“It’s super-bittersweet,” she said when asked about her performance in the final home game of her senior year. “That’s just leaving it all out there today for my teammates when they needed me the most, and that’s what I wanted to do, obviously, get a win and move on. My time here has been amazing, and I can’t really repay Villanova back for everything they’ve done for me. Getting a win here, a great team win, a revenge win, a rivalry win, feels amazing.”

Matching her with 16 points was Villanova junior Lucy Olsen, the nation’s third-leading scorer overcoming a slow start to come up big down the stretch.

St. Joe’s locked down Olsen early on, holding the first team All-Big East selection scoreless in the first half. Her first points came on a pair of foul shots 40 seconds into the second half, her first bucket coming with 3:07 left in the third quarter.

Lucy Olsen (above) had all 16 of her points in the second half. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

“They played tough defense, I think I’m just happy that my team was able to pick us up, that’s why it’s a team sport, and I don’t need to do everything because we have such a great team,” Olsen said. “So yeah, I got a little frustrated, but my team had my back…we figured it out, picked it up a little bit in the second half.”

Four Wildcats finished in double figures. Junior center Christina Dalce had a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds, adding three blocks; junior point guard Zanai Jones had 10 of her own, plus six rebounds.

Behind Runyan’s sharpshooting and some lockdown defense, Villanova took a 36-26 lead into the half. St. Joe’s spent the whole second half trying to put a serious run together, getting within three points with 6:39 left in the fourth quarter.

Olsen responded with a personal 7-0 run to get it back to double digits; the Hawks never were within a shot the rest of the way. A turnover on an offensive foul with 1:15 left and a six-point margin was critical; Christina Dalce scored on the ensuing possession to make it an eight-point lead with 50 seconds to play, and the Wildcats went 4-for-4 from the line in the final minute to seal the win.

“Same thing as last time,” Runyan said. “We were up, they inched back, but this time you see the growth and how much we’ve matured that we were able to sustain that lead.”

Talya Brugler led the way for St. Joe’s with a 20-point outing, moving into 9th place in the program’s scoring list (1,370 points) in the process.

The Hawks set a new program record for wins with 28 this season, but lost in the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals to fall short of the NCAA Tournament. They were hurt by a rough night from the floor from second-leading scorer Laura Ziegler, the 6-2 sophomore forward going 1-for-14 from the floor and finishing with a season-low five points.

As a team, the Hawks were just 3-of-16 from the 3-point arc, well below their season average (33.7%), and 21-of-61 (34.4%) from the floor as Villanova blocked eight shots.

“You look at the scores, Villanova wins their first two [WBIT] games by 15 because they’re unfamiliar opponents and they’re better,” St. Joe’s coach Cindy Griffin said. “We are more familiar and we knew what to expect, we just didn’t get the production from all of us and we needed that tonight.”

Junior Mackenzie Smith added 13 points and seven rebounds for St. Joe's, which also got a strong effort from freshman guard Gabby Casey, the Lansdale Catholic product scoring 11 points with six rebounds in 26 minutes.

"She's a competitor, she's a gamer," Griffin said of Casey. "Just the growth for her over the course of the year, she gave us so much energy and she changes the game when she comes in. We're expecting big things from her next year."

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