Photos: Geanine Jamison
By: John Knebels
VILLANOVA – At this stage, it’s difficult to find more compliments that accurately embrace the season orchestrated by Villanova University’s women’s basketball team.
Talk about a program that, to put it simply, does things the right way.
Villanova women's basketball is heading to the Sweet 16 - PSD Photo by Geanine Jamison
As the 30-6 Wildcats prepare to take on the University of Miami (2:30 Friday afternoon in Greenville, South Carolina) with an opportunity to join the 2003 edition as the second team in school history to reach the NCAA Elite 8, a brief reflection on Monday night’s dominant 76-57, second-round victory over Florida Gulf Coast University Monday night before a start-to-finish, revved up capacity crowd at the Finneran Pavilion beckons.
As she conducted interviews – from just seconds after the win through the post-game press conference – star senior Maddy Siegrist clearly feels best when her teammates share the spotlight.
Though impossible to ever overlook the eye-popping statistics of a player who had just set an NCAA record by reaching 20 points for a 36th consecutive game and, days before, had been named a first-team All-American, Siegrist was most effusive NOT when assessing her own brilliant 31-point, six-rebound, four-block, four-steal performance, but when she was asked about some of the intangibles that help galvanize this obviously close-knit, caring group of Wildcats.
Sophomore Lucy Olsen, a force all night behind 23 points, 10 rebounds, and seven rebounds, answered first.
“Hard work that we bring every day to practice,” said Olsen. “Everyone wants to be there, and we push each other to be the best we can.”
Then it was Siegrist’s turn.
“Yeah, just to go off of that, I think there's so many things that happen that you don't see,” said Siegrist. “Like (junior) Kylie Swider. She braids everybody's hair before the games. That's something little, but that's something that really brings the team together.
“(Freshman) Megan Olbrys. She’s out with a hand injury. You wouldn't know it the way she sits on the bench. She's the loudest one. I think everyone just has a role, and she does it really, really well. I think when you have a group like that who just, like, buys in.
“(Senior starter) Brooke Mullin. Every single night she's on the other team's best player, and that's her role, and you know she's going to do it great. I think when you have a team like that, a lot of really special things can happen.”
Almost lost in the elaborate shuffle was that Villanova coach Denise Dillon had just captured her 400th career coaching victory – 329-211 at Drexel, and now 71-22 for a jaw-dropping .763 winning percentage at Villanova.
“I'll certainly remember it,” said Dillon. “Again, as a coach, you remember some of the great wins, and unfortunately you remember all the losses. But this one, I'll certainly hold onto. Yeah, it's unbelievable, just the journey. Take a little time to reflect.
“I always say you're not in this position without a tremendous staff. I felt I had the best at Drexel. We just continue to get even better here at Villanova.
“You're nothing without players. So I've had . . . I've been super fortunate in my career to be developing and working with some incredible young women who just want to give everything to their university. So it's been a lot of fun.”
A Hall-of-Fame inductee at both Villanova (Class of 1996) and Cardinal O’Hara High School (Class of 1992; two-time PCL champion), Dillon said it was important for the Sweet 16-bound “incredible young women” to celebrate their latest success with unbridled enthusiasm.
“You have to enjoy these moments, or you're going to lose the innocence of the game and how much they put into it,” said Dillon. “Yeah, just appreciation of the crowd, everything that our department, the university in general, has put into making this weekend so incredible.
“I'm so glad the girls felt to recognize the students out there and do everything possible. I mean, the fans stayed there in the stands. Yeah, we're going to soak it up as much as we can.”
And although she made specific mention of her starters, Dillon waxed eloquently when asked about Villanova’s reserves, specifying junior Bella Runyan (Moorestown Friends product), sophomore Kaitlyn Orihel (Archbishop Wood alum), and sophomore Zanai Jones.
“We've always relied on Bella Runyan,” said Dillon. “She's been that sixth player since her freshman year, and she just embraces that role starting in the second half just to keep that spark, keep that energy going. So she's given us that. But I feel that her offensive game has grown. It’s there, and she's feeling more confident with producing there.
Villanova senior Maddy Siegrist scored 31-points and added six-rebounds, four-blocks & four-steals in NCAA second-round victory over Florida Gulf Coast - PSD Photo by Geanine Jamison
The Wildcats keep on dancing in the NCAA tournament - PSD Photo by Geanine Jamison
“Kaitlyn Orihel, we joke . . . when it's time to battle, you're calling her number. She doesn't get fazed in big games. That's the thing about Kaitlyn. Just having that mentality. She's going to compete no matter what; no matter who she's going up against. And seeing Zanai Jones get more minutes is crucial for us. Just being able to take Lucy off the ball a little bit certainly helps, giving us that scoring opportunity.
“Any time the players, you see it with the experience, two of them, in Kaitlyn and ‘Z’ being sophomores, it's exciting because I always think the biggest growth in a player is going from sophomore to junior year. So them getting this experience is really good for our program.”
That experience isn’t over quite yet.
“I said to Brooke (Mullin), I was just like thinking about when we first got here, you know, there weren't that many people in the stands, and it's like a sold-out crowd,” said Siegrist. “It's just so exciting . . . just trying to take it all in. Just look around because, if this is my last game home, it's a great way to go out.”
That’s a conversation for a different day.
(Contact John Knebels at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @johnknebels.)