Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Guru’s WBB March Madness Package: Drexel, Lehigh, Rutgers Learn Their Fate While Villanova and Delaware are WNIT Bound

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

Because of the NCAA women’s tournament being held in its entirely in the San Antonio region of Texas, beginning this weekend, part of the mystery that always exists for the teams clinching automatic bids and those at-large candidates considered locks was resolved by the end of Sunday’s two-week run of conference tournaments in the overnight space before the announcement of the 64-team on the ESPN Selection Show that got under way Monday at 7 p.m.

“We’re going to Texas.”

This, of course, is quite different than any of the 38 that came before but definitely preferable to a year ago when both men’s and women’s NCAA events were among the major, even unthinkable casualties through cancellations as the coronavirus pandemic told hold. 

Of course moving, forward and the annual Big Dance continues, we will always have to pause in the total number, since one year of non-competition will have to be subtracted from the overall calculation to element the 2020 no-go that stopped this from being a 40th anniversary affair.

To summarize the fate of all the locals involved in Division I as we got to this point, the suspense of being a bubble or just off it and keeping fingers crossed was not a factor as each season to date was clear cut.

La Salle or Saint Joseph’s had to win the Atlantic 10 and neither got close, though the Explorers made progress in program growth and the Hawks battled shutdowns and ended with hopes old times could return by next season.

Temple at the outset had the freedom of departed UConn to the Big East, giving the Owls a better advantage to compete in the American Athletic Conference. But the Owls struggled with COVID-19 issues, then had moments of promise dissolve into let-downs and in the end was a no-go, though with senior Mia Davis among returnees through the bonus season, there is promise of potential improvement next season.

Rider in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference started with a roster stripped through graduation of the stud group holding a number one seed a year ago, especially WNBA-draftee Stella Johnson, the nation’s leading scorer and now a member of the Washington Mystics. The Broncs started 1-12 but in tournament time in Atlantic City last week they pulled together to survive the first round off a three-week layoff and shocked No. 2 seed Quinnipiac before falling competitively to third-seed Saint Peter’s. So they are left in growth mode for next season.

Penn State, still building under coach Carolyn Kieger, had moments, but in a conference now loaded with NCAA participants that were a strong cluster in the national rankings, the Lady Lions were not ready for Prime Time.

The two to feel the most for were Penn and Princeton, wiped out by the Ivy League’s decision to shut down winter sports, where otherwise they might have battle for an other crown with the other being an at-large pick. 

It was most painful for the Quakers, here, the landlords and ladies of the Palestra, who had a senior WNBA prospect in Eleah Parker, who would have loved to stay with graduate work but there were not enough elements in the Quakers bag of tricks to make it happen and she is headed for Virginia, which actually opted out of this season in the ACC along the way.

“What can I say, it really stinks,:” Quakers coach Mike McLaughlin said, though his squad should be decent when returning to action.

In retrospect, perhaps as weird as it was, the Ivy should have taken the Patriot League, delayed start, in-house-only play, direction, which might have resulted at the same hopeful end, though perhaps lower seed than what could have been.

So that leaves the survives, who all knew they were going to be somewhere and did not land far away from being even slightly better.

Lehigh found a way to be Cinderella in the Patriot League  following a midseason of developing hopelessness and took down the top two seeds in Bucknell and Boston University.

The Mountain Hawks’s future Monday night is as a 13th-seed for Lehigh (10-5) playing fourth-seed and Big 12 runnerup West Virginia (21-6), ranked 17th in the final poll in the Hemisphere Region — the four are taking on the name of local cultural attractions —  on Sunday at 8 p.m. in San Antonio. 

The winner in Tuesday’s second-round will meet either 12th-seeded Stephen F. Austin (24-2), the Southland winner; or 5th-seeded at-large pick Georgia Tech (15-8), an at-large pick out of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The opening round will be at St. Mary’s.

The overall seed for the region is Dawn Staley’s South Carolina squad, finished sixth in the final poll Monday, but recovered to win another Southeastern Conference title following a loss to Texas A&M on the final day of the regular season.

Having earned the bid late Sunday, the Mountain Hawks were still as much brimming from the accomplishments as preparing for the task at hand.

“We went to Bucknell and got that monkey off our back,” coach Sue Troyan said of the four losses previously of their five to a Bison squad that had been unbeaten and 18-0 over a two-season run. “I thought they played a great offensive and defensive game going to Boston and taking them down.”

“We’ve been a real potent offensive team all year. I think over these last two or three weeks, we’ve really been probably the key to our tournament success. We’ve put both ends together and really challenged them on that side. And I think the other thing that helped is we played in the toughest pod in the league. We learned a lot of lessons playing tough teams.”

Rutgers Earns Sixth Seed: Perhaps the 21st-ranked Scarlet Knights (14-4) could have done better had not the nine-game win-streak following a five-week shutdown under COVID-19 protocols ended with a quarterfinal upset loss to Iowa at the Big Ten Tournament at Bankers Fieldhouse in Indiana.

But given the hard luck history over the years in these draws, through travel, matchup, and additional burdens, if Hall of Fame coach C. Vivian Stringer can get Rutgers to shake off the earlier elimination the Knights could make an interesting run, considering the dynamic offense that was developed this year to go with the trademark defense.

They will open Monday in the Mercado Region at noon on ESPNU at Texas State against 11th-seeded BYU (14-5), which lost in the West Coast Conference championship at the buzzer to conference top seed and 14th-ranked Gonzaga (23-3), the fifth-seed in the region.  The winner will face third-seed, 11th-ranked Arizona (16-5) or 14th-seed Stony Brook (15-5), the America East champs making their NCAA debut.

The No. 1 seed is third-ranked and Atlantic Coast Conference champion North Carolina State (20-2), highest seed ever for the Woldpack. The second seed is SEC regular season champ, fourth-reanked Texas A&M (23-2).

It is certainly, though tough, a place where Rutgers might be able to carve a path to stay a long time in the Lone Star State.

This has been a Scarlet Knights contingent mixed with dynamic youth such as Diamond Johnson from Philadelphia, to veterans such as likely WNBA draft pick Arella Guirantes and Tekia Mack.

Rutgers is certainly one of those squads with the unfinished business approach having been assured of landing an at-large bid a year ago before the shutdown struck.

“What impresses me most about or squad is their resilience, their ability to come back and practice hard each day, and the direction of the seniors, and the freshman, we had nine freshman,” Stringer said. “This was the youngest class in the country, but the senior leadership is so important, it can only  be done with that kind of senior leadership and the respect they have given to us, and it’s more than I expect of any senior class and they’ve done just that.”

Postseason for Villanova and Drexel: Meanwhile, a year ago, disruption, but not chaos, occurred beyond the damage of the pandemic as longtime Drexel coach Denise Dillon, followed a 17-year run with the Dragons, not entirely unexpected, returned to her alma mater at Villanova to succeed longtime mentor Harry Perretta, who was retiring after 42 seasons on the Main Line. 

With him departing were several major seniors but returning was the Big East freshman of the year in Maddie Siegrist. Brianna Herlihy, though, was coming back from injury, and a transfer was added in Sarah Motensen. Furthermore, two quality freshmen came in via Lior Garzon from Israel and Bella Runyon on a squad that also had senior Raven James and Sam Carangi, among others.

The mix was enough that Dillon was not going to be a total Perretta clone on strategy, hyping the offensive attack.

The Wildcats had to deal with shutdowns caused on both their side and by opponents through a wild Big East season.

 But at the finish after an upset loss to Seton Hall to drop to a fifth seed for the conference tournament, Villanova (15-6) sprung a surprise in the quarterfinals, upsetting fourth-seed and then-ranked DePaul 78-72 in overtime before getting crushed by top-seed and overall No. 2 Connecticut in the semifinals.

Villanova fell perhaps just a bit short to get taken by the NCAA, but the WNIT, which is using a new format this season because of the COVID-19 protocols, had strong interest in the Wildcats, who likewise, would love to keep playing.

And so Monday night after the NCAA field became public, Villanova became part of the eight-team group that will be in the Charlotte bubble at Bojangles Arena beginning Friday night and having a consolation round. Delaware (21-4), which was upset by Drexel in the Colonial Athletic Association title game at Elon’s Schar Center Saturday afternoon, was also taken.

So was DePaul ((1w4-8), which will be in the Rockford (Ill.) region as will Creighton (9-11) out of the Big East and unbeaten Cal Baptist (24-0), the Western Athletic Conference champ, in the Fort Worth Region in Texas, that was NCAA-ineligible due to the program is still transitioning to full membership.

Dillon thought the Blue Demons were certainly overlooked due to their late slide by the NCAA.

“You look at two losses by them, we shouldn’t be punished because UConn returned to the league,” she said.

The NCAA did take runnerup Marquette (19-6), the 10th seed, which will open in the Riverwalk Region with No. 7 seed Virginia Tech (14-9) on Sunday at  noon on ESPNU at Texas Tech.

Dillon had a little watch party with her team Monday.

Stumped, the Guru said, the WNIT never televises the field.

“I know that. I just wanted them over here to see where they should be tonight.”

Villanova on Friday will open with UMass. (14-7), which playing all four days with just seven players advanced to the title game of the Atlantic 10 tourney, losing in the closing minutes to VCU.

The Minutewomen in the first round had to rally and eliminate Saint Joseph’s in overtime.

The winner meets Charlotte (10-10), a former A-10 member now with C-USA, or Florida (11-3), out of the SEC in the next round Saturday at 8 p.m.

Delaware (21-4) meets A-10 representative Fordham (12-4) Friday in Charlotte at 11 a.m., and then either Ohio U. (14-8) out of the MAC or Clemson (11-13) out of the ACC at 5 p.m.

The regional title game is Tuesday at 7 p.m. 

Which leaves us with the other shoe, where Drexel landed following Dillon’s long-time associate head coach being promoted in Amy Mallon.

“I was so happy when she got the job,” said senior Hannah Nihill, one of the stars of the Dragons upset rallies over James Madison and Delaware.

Drexel is the 14th seed Monday at noon in the Alamo Region at St. Mary’s playing third seed and 10th ranked Georgia (20-6) on ESPN2. 

The winner gets either No. 6 Oregon (13-6), which was ranked 23rd, or No. 11 South Dakota State (19-5), which was ranked 25th.

The overall seed for the region is the overall best of the No. 1 seeds in second-ranked Stanford (25-2).

“It’s been an amazing experience so far and we just want to soak it all in,” said Drexel’s Keishana Washington, the most outstanding player of the CAA tourney, who fired two 30-point games in the upsets.

The forte of Dillon and Mallon at both schools this time of year is playing opponents unfamiliar with the Perretta systems and getting trapped.

“I know I’m glad I’m not with them,” said Northwestern Wildcats coach Joe McKeown, a Father Judge grad out of Northeast Philadelphia, whose Big Ten squad was expected to land in the NCAA field.

“We’re a team that can be dangerous and are a team that the people don’t want to see because of how we play on the defensive end of the floor,” Mallon said. “We know we can be a dangerous team to face.”

Nihill was the CAA defensive player of the year.

Mallon’s success to date has made her a frontrunner for the WBCA’s Maggie Dixon rookie coach of the year.

“No matter what, our team is going into every game to play as hard as we can,” Nihill said. “When we found out we were playing Georgia, we were really excited just having another opportunity to make something happen.”

And for a few hours, that is the report four now.
 


  



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