For a moment, it looked like Villanova would survive the storm, after a dominant first half by the Miami Hurricanes.
The Lady ‘Cats trailed by as much as 21 points, before they regrouped and rallied with a furious second-half comeback, but Miami was able to fend off the resilient Wildcats to win, 70-65.
“This was certainly a tough finish for us, congratulations to Miami, who came in ready to go, battled through and advanced,” Villanova coach Denise Dillon said. “It’s been our message since Day 1, you’re going to battle to the end no matter what the outcome is. You’re going to fight and this team has always responded to that. I say it because that’s what they bring every day in practice.
“They compete, they battle, and they’ve gotten to this point because of that mentality. My mistake — we should have in the first half — showed more of the press and pressure, but we think a team that’s quick like that can take advantage but just waited a little too late to make that run.
The ninth-seeded Hurricanes are headed to their first Elite Eight in program history after racing out to an early lead. They disoriented the ‘Cats with their pressure and carved them up in the paint and on the glass to start.
It was a disastrous first half that saw Villanova trailing, 46-25. Only one team in women’s basketball NCAA Tournament history had rallied from a 20-point margin and win, and Villanova gave Miami a scare that it was going to be the second team to achieve the historic feat.
The Wildcats never went away quietly, with Maddy Siegrist spearheading the second-half charge, sophomore forward Christina Dalce providing massive plays in the post on both ends of the floor, and Bella Runyan chipped in some baskets to fuel the surge.
The Wildcats buckled down defensively, and the Hurricanes started to get flustered.
“We started dictating on defense,” Villanova guard Bella Runyan said. “We were saying at halftime we were letting them get whatever they wanted. We had to dictate defensively and we did just that. We came up with steals, rebounds, one-and-done, strung together stops, had heart, and that’s what helped us get back.”
Villanova used a massive 23-2 run that stretched over 10 minutes late in the third quarter and well into the fourth quarter.
Siegrist topped the run with a pair of free throws to give Villanova its first lead of the game with 5:31 to go.
From there, it was a back-and-forth stretch, with Dalce and Lucy Olsen responding and answering for ‘Nova.
Olsen made a layup with 49 seconds to go, giving Villanova a 65-64 lead. That would be the final made shot for the Wildcats.
Siegrist, who had been a focal point of double teams and immense pressure by Miami all throughout, had two good looks at the end to try and keep Villanova in it, but both shots rimmed out.
“Honestly, I wasn’t really looking how they were defending me,” Siegrist said. “I knew once I got the ball, just turn, shoot over the top. Besides the Hail Mary at the end, both shots, I thought were in. I totally back-rimmed, and I thought they were good. I would take them 100 times over.”
Siegrist, who is a widely-projected top five pick in the WNBA Draft, closed the season with a bang. She hit the 20-point mark in every game this season, with her streak of 37-straight 20-point games being the longest of any Division I men’s and women’s player in the last century, but she didn’t stop there on Friday.
She finished with a 31-point, 13-rebound double-double on 8-of-29 shooting. She shot 14-of-15 from the free throw line. Siegrist also had two assists and five steals in what potentially could be her final outing in a Villanova uniform.
“I gotta talk to my parents and stuff like that after, but I couldn’t be more grateful I had for the opportunity I had to play here,” Siegrist said, tearfully. “I met so many great people. It’s really about the people, take the basketball part out of it. The memories and the people, I know, I’m going to cherish forever.”
Dalce had 13 points, eight rebounds, including five on the offensive glass, with five blocks and a steal. Olsen chipped in eight points. Runyan accounted for all six bench points, and she had three assists, two steals and a block.
For Miami, Jasmyn Roberts had a team-high 26 points on 10-of-16 shooting, with nine rebounds and four steals. Destiny Harden had 15 points, nine rebounds and a steal.
Villanova ends its memorable season, which culminated in its second-ever Sweet 16 appearance, with a 30-7 record.