It was the first time Villanova hosted a NCAA Tournament game at home since 1988, and the Wildcats surely owned the moment.
“We had this type of crowd at our UConn game at home, but to see supporters show up for the women's side was a really cool experience, and I’m never going to forget this game and the next one,” said junior guard Bella Runyan when asked about the environment.
The fourth-seeded ‘Cats made a grand entrance and raced out to a massive lead, then coasted for a 76-59 finish over No. 13 seed Cleveland State in Saturday’s opening round matchup at Finneran Pavilion.
The Warriors won the tip and just about ten seconds later opened the scoring by way of a Destiny Leo three ball. There was about a four or five minute period of teams exchanging metaphorical jabs, until a Bella Runyan layup gave the Wildcats a lead they would never surrender.
“Just big mistakes by our defensive that we don’t normally make, and that kind of got us down and then we got a little bit frustrated, and just didn’t handle execution of our game plan the way we needed to,” said Cleveland State Head Coach Chris Kielsmeier.
Villanova would finish the first quarter on a 12-1 run over the last four minutes in change. That run carried into the second quarter, as Maddy Siegrist and the Wildcats would finally start to find their rhythm.
A tough Bella Runyan rebound would give us the loudest crowd pop of the first half and add three points on to an already doubled-up Vikings team.
“I couldn’t be more proud of Bella [Runyan] and Kaitlyn [Orihel] coming off the bench and being able to hit that many threes is just so impressive,” exclaimed Maddy Siegrist.
The Wildcats had a massive 42-21 lead at the break, and while Cleveland State showed some fight in the final quarter of the game, the deficit was too great to overcome.
Villanova led by as high as 32 in the game.
It was reported that Megan Olbrys suffered a fourth metacarpal fracture in practice earlier this week and will be sidelined and re-evaluated in two weeks. Olbrys is a 6-foot-1 freshman who is a valuable role player for Villanova off the bench. She averages 2.4 points, 1.8 rebounds, on 51% shooting this season.
In her absence, it was Bella Runyan and Kaitlyn Orihel that stepped up for the Wildcats off the bench. The two combined for the loudest play of the day and filled up the stat sheet to boot. Runyan finished with 13 points and five assists, while Orihel finished with nine points.
Runyan is usually known as a defensive specialist, guarding the other team's best player, but it was her offensive skill set on full display tonight.
“Don’t let her touch the ball because the less she touches the ball the less that she’s going to score,” Runyan said of guarding Destiny Leo. “I mean, she scored 25 on me, but I did my best, she’s a really good player, she gets her shot out really fast.”
Maddy Siegrist put on a clinic for the Wildcats today, eclipsing the 1,000 point mark just this season alone in the process. She finished with 35 points and five rebounds on 15-of-28 shooting (53.5%) from the field.
“Yeah it means a lot, you know, we won the game and it’s better when you win and you get a milestone than when you lose and get one,” Siegrist said. “But yeah, it is something I will definitely think about, I’ll probably think about it after the season.”
She also has scored at least 20 points in all 35 games this season, tying Kelsey Plum for a streak of 35-straight which is the most in Division I women’s college basketball since 1999.
“She is a great player, so even having my name in the same category as someone like that is such an honor,” said Siegrist.
Lucy Olsen was also a valuable contributor, as she finished with nine points. Christina Dalce finished with 16 (!!) rebounds, and was the teams defensive anchor in the paint.
Although Siegrist, filled up the stat sheet, this was a combined group domination from this Villanova team. They looked to be well prepared and firing on all cylinders exactly at the right time.
“Let’s give them a lot of credit because they were really, really good, and I knew and I witnessed it, they are just a really focused team,” Kielsmeier said. “They are going to be a tough out in this tournament because they got so much experience and toughness that just wins this time of year.”
As for the Vikings they were led by their sophomore phenom Destiny Leo who once again filled up the stat sheet with 25 points, four rebounds and four assists. Amele Ngwafang added nine points and seven rebounds.
“Destiny was Destiny tonight,” Kielsmeier said of his standout sophomore. “I think that there is probably a lot more people now that know really how good she is. But she’s not just- she’s a great player.”
Villanova will have their hands full on Monday, facing an extremely talented Florida Gulf Coast team who handled the number five seed Washington State Cougars handily earlier today.
“You see what Florida Gulf Coast is capable of doing, they flipped it,” Villanova coach Denise Dillon said. “In the first half, it was more drives in the second half it was more threes, so it is going to be a lot of that one on one coverage. We’ll be in a position and work it out together with different screen action.”
As the betting favorites before the game, this FGCU team is a lot of things, but one thing they are not are your typical 12-seed. Let’s hope the crowd resembles one that looks like this on Monday!