After dabbling in the WNIT for four-straight years, all of the players from the previous NCAA Tournament appearance in 2013 had graduated and cycled out.
Last season, with four returning starters and the Villanova Wildcats’ top six scorers back in action, they seemed to be destined for a special year.
A hot 10-0 start to the season, along with their return to the rankings for the first time in over a decade, propelled the Wildcats to a 23-9 finish. Most importantly, they were able to achieve a goal that had eluded them since conference realignment--reach the NCAA Tournament. Now that they’ve had a taste of the Big Dance, they don’t want to ever miss it again.
”When you have a group that’s coming back, where everyone’s gone to the tournament, that is now the standard,” said Villanova senior Jannah Tucker. “It becomes the norm. That is what you use to be the measurement of success to get back to. It’s definitely something that’s going to be a motivator for us to keep going and go past that.”
Villanova beat South Dakota State in the opening round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament, beating them in overtime thanks to three-point happy performance. Then, the Lady ‘Cats faced off against No. 1-seed Notre Dame in the second round. Despite a hard-fought battle with the Fighting Irish, where they were able to enter halftime dead even, the Wildcats fell to the eventual national champions in the second half.
”Going back to the end of last season, I think we should have won that game,” said Adrianna Hahn, a senior point guard. “I definitely think it was in our hands. Losing that game is kind of a big motivator for us coming into this season, because it’s saying we can win any game, especially going against the National Champions.”
The Wildcats have the talent and experience to build up for another run to a NCAA Tournament bid. They were ranked in third place in the Big East preseason coaches’ poll, right behind usual conference favorites DePaul and Marquette.
Last year, they beat conference tournament champion DePaul by 26 points in the regular season, further reaffirming their “anything can happen” mentality.
Villanova graduated three seniors from last season, Nicolette Juliana and two starters--Alex Louin and Megan Quinn. Louin was the team’s top scorer and rebounder last season, averaging 11.7 points and 7.0 boards. As for Quinn, at 6-foot-2, she added physicality and size in the frontcourt.
”We didn’t just lose size, Alex and Megan are both experienced players,” Tucker said. “Losing them, we lost experience too, so that’s something we’d have to adjust to. We have to bring in people who might not have played a lot last year or what have you, so it might just be an adjustment.”
So, who is back?
Reigning Big East Sixth Woman of the Year Mary Gedaka is Villanova’s top returning scorer and rebounder. She finished right behind Louin in both categories, averaging 11.6 points and 4.9 rebounds, while shooting an efficient 60.8 percent on the floor.
The Wildcats have three starters coming back--Tucker, Hahn, and junior Kelly Jekot. Tucker and Hahn have been staples for the program since they first arrived onto the Main Line. Hahn was a standout freshman and was named the Big East Sixth Woman of the Year back in 2016, she also comes in with two years of starting experience. Tucker has started ever since she transferred in from Tennessee. Last season, she led Villanova with a 38.5 percent clip from beyond the arc.
Meanwhile, Jekot enjoyed a much-improved sophomore season, adding a little bit of everything to the court. She also averaged in double figures, finishing the year with 11.3 points per game.
Aside from them, redshirt junior Bridget Herlihy and senior Grace Stant saw a tremendous amount of action last season, playing in 31 of the team’s 32 games and bringing energy off the bench. They will be looking for a much bigger role.
The team’s seniors praised the play of redshirt freshman Sam Carangi and also expect her to be someone that could possibly have a breakout year and has been doing well.
”I think she brings a lot to the table, because she paid attention during her redshirt year,” Hahn said. “She knows what to do, she knows her role. I think she can do a good job of handling the ball, handling the pressure, running the offense on the team, even with being a leader on the floor--she does a great job with that.”
So with all this returning talent and some new faces, what do the ‘Cats need to work on from now until the season begins?
”Definitely need to fine tune the defense, that’s something we need to fix,” Stant said. “I think every year, we’re definitely an offensive-oriented team. That’s just how we play, but we got that taste of the NCAA Tournament. In order to keep reaching our goals and taking steps to where we need to be, our defense just needs to get better. If it does, I think we can really be a good team.”
We shall see. The Lady ‘Cats will get a glimpse of action against East Stroudsburg in a Nov. 1 exhibition game. The season will tip-off on Nov. 7, at 7 p.m., against Hartford at the newly renovated Pavilion.