Photos: Patty Morgan
By: Ed Morrone
PHILADELPHIA — Playing without injured first team All-Big East junior forward Maddy Siegrist, the winless Villanova Wildcats desperately needed a spark on Saturday afternoon as the team visited Saint Joseph’s to kick a new Big Five campaign.
Enter Lior Garzon … and perhaps a special assist from her mother.
Garzon, a 6-foot-1 sophomore forward from outside Tel Aviv, Israel, began to take over in the second quarter with her team trailing by three to the Hawks at the end of one. When it was over, Garzon had scored a game- and career-high 26 points (8-for-15 shooting, 9-for-10 from the line) to go along with four rebounds and three assists in Villanova’s convincing 55-39 victory on Hawk Hill.
Villanova sophomore Lior Garzon #12 recorded a career high 26pts. vs. St. Joe's on Saturday - PSD Photo by Patty Morgan
It was even sweeter that the dominant, statement performance was witnessed by Garzon’s mother, Ruth, who surprised her daughter earlier in the week with a week-long visit to the Philadelphia area. Ruth’s visit was the first time the two had seen one another since Garzon arrived on campus in Sept. 2020, mainly due to the pandemic, but also the fact that Garzon opted to stay in the states last summer rather than returning to Israel to play for her national team so that she could help form team synergy with the Wildcats’ five incoming freshmen.
Garzon played loose and confident, and admitted afterward to having a little something extra with the most special of guests in attendance.
“She surprised me on Monday,” Garzon said with an ear-to-ear smile. “She told me she was coming to my games this week, and it was really nice to see her, especially after COVID last year. She couldn’t come then, so this has been really exciting for me.”
Garzon scored eight of her 26 in the second quarter, which the Wildcats won 19-13, to help give Villanova a 27-24 halftime lead following a late three-pointer by freshman Lucy Olsen (seven points, four rebounds, three assists). Garzon picked up right where she left off after the break, dropping 11 more in the quarter and pushing her team’s lead to a dozen.
“It was a team win today, and we all stepped up for Maddy,” Garzon said. “I don’t really look at myself as a go-to player on offense; today, we just passed the ball well and talked to each other. Our goal was to get to the basket, draw fouls and make our shots at the line. We did a good job getting to the basket and not settling for contested three’s. We needed to be aggressive and take what they gave us, and they gave us open layups time after time.”
Graduate student Brianna Herlihy #14 tallied 12 rebounds, 6pts. and 4 assists for the Wildcats - PSD Photo by Patty Morgan
After the game, Villanova head coach Denise Dillon said Siegrist re-aggravated a hand/wrist injury in practice and was awaiting imaging in the area to determine how much more time she could miss, if any (Villanova will visit Penn on Monday and host Temple on Saturday to continue Big Five play).
Either way, Garzon’s eruption on offense came at the perfect time for the Wildcats, who had dropped games to Princeton and Maryland to open the season. Graduate student Brianna Herlihy also had a strong game in the front-court for Villanova, grabbing 12 rebounds to go with six points and four assists to form a powerful one-two punch down low that the Hawks (1-3) had few answers for.
Afterward, Dillon heaped praise upon Garzon, saying the sophomore had plenty of chances to back out of her commitment to Villanova. Dillon, a 1996 Villanova graduate, was hired away from Drexel in March 2020 and was the first new women’s basketball head coach at the school in more than four decades. With the pandemic also walloping the globe, Dillon knows how much strength it took for Garzon to leave home, and to stay once she got here.
“She made a decision to come to the states and come to Villanova with me,” Dillon said. “She had a lot of outs, and when an individual makes a decision like that, they are going to grow. She had a really nice freshman season, and I thought she was close to being on the All-Big East freshman team.
“She had the opportunity to play for her national team, but she told me that it was important she stayed. It was her first summer here together with the team, and she knew we had five incoming freshmen to continue to grow in what we are doing. It’s been a big step for her, maturity wise.”
In addition to playing with efficiency in the front court and getting to the foul line (Villanova got to the stripe 21 times, sinking 15 free throws), the Wildcats suffocated the Hawks on defense. St. Joe’s shot just 25 percent from the field (13-for-52) and turned the ball over 17 times, never able to get into anything resembling an offensive rhythm. Dillon singled out the defensive spark set by sophomore Bella Runyan, who started in Siegrist’s place and collected four blocks and three steals in 33 minutes. The Hawks didn’t have a single scorer reach double figures, with freshman Mackenzie Smith leading the way with eight, while fellow freshman Talya Brugler grabbed eight boards.
“Our defense is our go-to,” Garzon said. “We’ve practiced it so much this season, how we can force them into tough shots and doing things they don’t want to on offense. It’s something we pay a lot of attention to.”
Of course, the intensity of a Big Five game and staring down the barrel of an 0-3 start didn’t hurt Villanova’s motivation, either.
“We came into this game like it was our NCAA final,” Garzon said. “We had to win, no matter how we did it. We were missing Maddy and have five freshmen, so to have a big role in the offense was a big step for me. It was a great decision for me to come to Villanova, and now I am just focusing on the player I need to be.”
Dillon is loving what she’s seeing in the development from her quiet, humble second-year forward.
“Lior is reserved, but I think she shows off her personality in the way that she plays,” Dillon said. “That’s what we want to see: her enjoying herself and being confident.”
As for Ruth’s presence at Villanova games?
“Lior’s performance may have been based a little bit off her mom,” Dillon said with a smile. “We may have to keep her (Ruth) here in the states for a little while.”