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Villanova women’s basketball NCAA Tournament Preview: No. 12 Florida Gulf Coast University

The Wildcats will have a chance to advance to the NCAA Round of 16 for the first time since 2003

NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament - First Round - Pennsylvania Photo by Eric Hartline/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

The Villanova Wildcats will have a chance to advance to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since Harry Perretta’s team made it to the Elite Eight in the 2002-03 season.

To do so, The ‘Cats will have to go through the Florida Gulf Coast University Eagles, who enter with an impressive 33-3 record and have only dropped one game on the road all season long.

Game time is scheduled for 7 p.m. ET at Finneran Pavilion.

The Eagles are coached by Karl Smesko, whose resume sits among the best all-time in his 24th season at the helm.

Smesko, the only coach FGCU has ever known, has engineered the programs ascension into becoming the winningest teams in NCAA women’s basketball Division I history, in terms of winning percentage.

The Eagles officially became qualified for the record after their 10th season in Division I back in 2021, but their 549-101 (.845) record puts them ahead of teams like Tennessee (.800), UConn (.798), and Stanford (.771).

Over the past eight seasons, Smesko has led the Eagles to 235 wins, which is fourth most nationally, only trailing UConn (270), Baylor (256), and South Carolina (246).

Don’t let the 12-seed fool you, this is a very deep and very talented FGCU team. When the Eagles took on the fifth-seeded Washington State Cougars on Saturday at the Finneran Pavilion, it was the 12-seeded Eagles who were actually betting favorites in Vegas over the 5-seeded Cougars. FGCU went on to end Washington State’s historic season with relative ease, 74-63.

Tishara “TK” Morehouse, a fifth year student from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is the scoring leader of this team at 15.9 points per game on 47.9% shooting. At 5-foot-3, Morehouse has no fear driving it to the basket, patrolling the offense with her tight handle, or even grabbing a few rebounds to the sound of 3.4 per game.

Sha Carter, a graduate student, is another key contributor for the Eagles. This is Carter’s first year on FGCU after transferring in from Walsh University (Division II) in North Canton, Ohio, where she was a three-time Division II All-American. This year, Carter has started all but three games, averaging 14.1 points and 6.2 rebounds per game.

FGCU has a plethora of talented scorers and role players that it would take too long to break down each and every one individually, so here is a rundown of who you need to know going into Monday’s game.

Uju Ezeudu, Kaela Webb, and Maddie Antenucci are a trio of talented role players who have appeared in all 36 games for the Eagles. On any given night one of these players could go off and change the game. On Saturday, it was Antenucci who, despite averaging less than 4.5 points per game on the season, went off for 11 points on perfect shooting to give the Eagles the exact margin of victory they needed to advance to Monday.

Emma List, Sophia Stiles and Alyza Winston are three players who have each started 30-plus of the team’s 36 games this season and can fill up the stat sheet every night.

Sophia Styles, a native of Malta (Montana), had to deal with her fair share of adversity in her six-year career. Her first five years were spent with the Montana Grizzlies, where she had to undergo knee and shoulder surgeries in back-to-back years. Then, just last week, she fractured her cheekbone against Austin Peay in the conference tournament semifinals. Look forher to be sporting a mask, and playing with a chip on her shoulder.

As for the Villanova Wildcats, they will be coming into this game looking to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time in two decades.

The biggest question mark for the Wildcats coming into the NCAA Tournament was how their depth would look after the news that Megan Olbrys would be sidelines with a hand injury for a minimum of two weeks. That question was answered quickly.

Bella Runyan and Kaitlyn Orihel not only rose to the challenge, but exceeded expectations in doing so. In Saturday’s win over Cleveland State, Runyan and Orihel combined for 22 of Villanova’s 76 points, including one highlight reel caliber play of the day (the last one).

Maddy Siegrist was also phenomenal in Saturday’s win, as she has been all year long. Siegrist finished with 35 points and made it look easy in the process. There is not much more to say about Siegrist that has not already been said, so take a look at this clip of her post game press conference last night. She is an amazing ambassador to the game and Villanova is lucky to have her on their team.

Moving onto the preview, the Eagles are not a team Denise Dillion and the Wildcats should, or will take lightly. FGCU ranks in the top 20 in points per game (18th) and points allowed per game (20th) at 77.9 and 56.0 points respectively. They are actually a better offensive team on the road then they are at home, averaging 5.7 more points away than they do at home.

As mentioned in the opener, this is a FGCU team that has only dropped one game all season away from home, and that was to the No. 2 team in the country. This is an experienced team who features ten players that are redshirt juniors or above. The Eagles’ best win of the year came on Saturday when they took down Washington State, but they have also beat Kentucky on the road and Liberty twice this season.

As for the Wildcats, they are no pushover and will most likely be favored in this matchup on Monday. Villanova has been dominant at home in Denise Dillon’s, tenure boasting a 31-7 record at the Finneran Pavilion that includes an 11-2 mark this season.

Villanova is also has the most Quad 2 wins in all of women’s college basketball with ten and has an impressive eight Quad 1 wins, good enough for 15th in the country. The Wildcats have also played against much better competition and won a lot more frequently than not.

The recipe for success in this one for the Wildcats is to utilize their depth to the best of their ability again. If Bella Runyan and Kaitlyn Orihel can replicate their performance from yesterday, the Wildcats should move onto the sweet sixteen.

As for x-factors in this one, look for Christina Dalce to continue her dominance in the paint. She is the teams unrivaled anchor in the paint and staying out of foul trouble is going to be key for her. Also, look for Brooke Mullin to have an impact on this one as well. Mullin is not the kind of player to light the net on fire or stuff the stat sheet, but game in and game out she makes winning plays with her hustle, defense and attitude.

Lucy Olsen and Maddy Siegrist will continue to dominate, as they have been all year. Nothing to look for with these two, just sit back and enjoy the show.

The winner of this game will advance to the Sweet Sixteen to face the winner of the matchup between one-seed Indiana and nine-seed Miami (FL) in Greensboro, NC on March 24th.