Rider, Saint Joseph's, Drexel, and Villanova Highlight Six Locals in WNIT Field
When you’ve got another historic moment coming up in a season of many and a snowstorm alongside of it, you might as well head to the office and hunker down and watch film of an unfamiliar opponent.
“It’s exciting knowing this is a first time for the Rider program but nerve wracking waiting to see who we play,” Rider coach Lynn Milligan said from her office Monday waiting for the WNIT to make assignments and and draw once the NCAA field of 64 was determined.
To play it safe and not get stuck in their residences an hour south of the Lawrenceville, N.J., campus because of the impending snow storm, Milligan and associate head coach Pam Durkin headed back north to await the name of their opponent and where the game was to be played.
Within the hour the pairings were announced and Rider drew a trip to Virginia Tech near Roanoke on Friday night to play in the first round.
“Looks like we’re the only ones really traveling,” Milligan said of a record number of six Guru local teams in the WNIT field with the automatic qualifiers of the Broncs out of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, Villanova out of the Big East, and Princeton out of the Ivy League, along with at-large bids to Saint Joseph’s, Drexel and Penn State.
Add Penn as the Ivy champion and Temple, ending a five-year absence, as an at-large guest to the NCAA field and that’s eight in the postseason.
Two other teams under consideration by the WNIT fell short in Delaware, which was knocked out in the quarterfinals of the Colonial Athletic Association, and La Salle, which lost three times to Saint Joseph’s and may have had a spot taken by George Washington, the Atlantic 10 regular season co-champion that did not land in the NCAA field.
Rutgers, which won the 2014 WNIT title, was already on the way to next season after having a six-win record and landing in the bottom of the Big Ten conference.
In Rider and Virginia Tech there’s a matchup of programs with break-through seasons.
Virginia Tech (17-13), under former longtime James Madison coach Kenny Brooks, returned to respectability and landed in the Associated Press women’s poll for several weeks before the rigors of the Atlantic Coast Conference wars knocked them down to a tie for 11th with Pittsburgh and the Hokies fell in the first round of the tournament to Clemson on a free throw in the closing seconds of regulation.
Rider (24-8) achieved many things not done before the current student population was born or never done at all, such as playing anywhere in the postseason before earning a WNIT automatic qualifier as the runner up in the MAAC and advancing to the title game before losing to regular season champion Quinnipiac.
The winner advancing to the second round will meet the winner of the George Washington-Navy game.
Saint Joseph’s (17-14), which will host Virginia (19-12), also on Friday, got one of the 32- at-large slots and was rewarded for reversing a 2-9 start to make a 12-4 run in the Atlantic 10, claim the third seed, and advance to the semifinals, losing to Duquesne.
It’s the 10th WNIT appearance for Saint Joseph’s and ninth under coach Cindy Griffin.
“We had bumps and bruises at the outset and challenges getting ready to play in the Atlantic 10 but then we got healthy and got tougher and these kids want to win,” Griffin said Monday night after the field was announced.
“We feel it’s a reward for our hard work and it’s great for our seniors and also for underclassmen, who have never played in the postseason.”
Virginia and Saint Joseph's have met many times over the years and Cavaliers coach Joanne Boyle was a runner up for the Hawks opening that went to one of their own in Griffin and Boyle then got the Richmond job and coached against Griffin in the Atlantic 10.
Boyle went on to rebuild California’s program and then was named at Virginia when Hall of Famer Debbie Ryan retired.
The Cavaliers finished eighth in the ACC behind seven nationally-ranked teams and narrowly missed making the NCAA field, extending their drought to seven straight years.
Boyle has assembled a talented roster in recent years that could become more of a threat next season.
The winner advances to a second round meeting with either CAA tournament runner up James Madison, which beat Saint Joseph’s on Hawk Hill in December, or Radford, the automatic qualifier out of the Big South that lost in the conference championship. JMU is the automatic qualifier out of the CAA.
Villanova (16-14) finished fourth in the Big East but with conference tourney winner Marquette, and regular season co-champs DePaul and Creighton heading to the NCAA, the Wildcats became a WNIT automatic qualifier as the highest remaining conference team.
The Wildcats also play Friday night and travel a little over an hour to play a familiar non-conference team in Princeton (16-13), the automatic qualifier out of the Ivy League for finishing second to Penn in the regular season. The Tigers also lost to the Quakers in Sunday’s first-ever Ivy tourney championship at Penn’s Palestra.
Drexel (21-10) had a fine season finishing third in the CAA and advancing to the tourney semifinals to easily earn an at-large bid from the WNIT, whose tournament the Dragons won in 2013.
Coach Denise Dillon’s group will also play Friday night and get to stay at home in the Daskalakis Athletic Center and get to host Duquesne (18-15), which as a seventh seed in the Atlantic 10 upset regular season co-champion George Washington and Saint Joseph’s before falling to top-seeded Dayton in the conference title game.
The winner advancing to the second round will meet either Villanova, which is Dillon’s alma mater, or Princeton, which the Dragons have played with some regularity over the years.
Finally, Penn State (19-10) on Friday night will host Ohio U (22-9) in the Bryce Jordan Center in State College as the Lady Lions, who received an at-large bid, finished in a tie for sixth in the Big Ten Conference and were ousted in the conference tournament by Minnesota in the second round.
The Bobcats fell to Northern Illinois 72-71 in the quarterfinals of the Mid-American conference and also own an at-large invite in the matchup with Penn State.
The winner who advances to the second round will meet either Fordham or Georgetown.