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.

Sunday, March 07, 2021

Guru’s WBB Report: Villanova Brings Down the Big East Champs But Now Must Fight the Returning Champ And One More to Claim the Crown

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

UNCASVILLE, Conn. - When it comes to dethroning a long-time running conference tournament champion, Villanova first-year coach Denise Dillon has some previous experience in getting the job done.

Back in 2009 then coaching Drexel in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament semifinals and riding the talents of all-time local Division I scorer Gabriela Marginean, Dillon’s Dragons brought down Old Dominion to end the 17-consecutive season reign of the Lady Monarchs and then still had to beat CAA power James Madison in the Dukes’ own building the next day to become the new rulers, which her team accomplished.

That was then, this is now.

The world is much different then back  in 2009 and even more so than 12 months ago when Tuesday of this week the Ivy League cancelled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments setting off a soon-to-be-rapid fire reaction across the sports world and everything else to the outbreak of the coronavirus claiming, among other thiings, the cancellations of the NCAA’s men’s and women’s tourneys.

Only now is there a light with vaccines having been developed and being distributed and enough caution observed to allow the Big East women’s tourney to proceed here at the Mohegan Sun casino-entertainment complex near New London, Conn.

But restrictions remain in terms of how these events proceed.

The building is not packed with UConn fans as it had been in seven previous seasons of domination of the Huskies, who never lost a game to an American Athletic Conference opponent.

But a deal brokered with The Mohegans and counseled with health officials has allowed some 100 tickets to go to friends and families of each of the ten Tier 1 traveling parties, who are not making in-person contact with players, coaches, media representatives, trainers, or officials on the floor of the arena.

Among them are the parents of Villanova’s Mackenzie Gardler, as former superstar at Cardinal O’Hara in the Philadelphia suburbs. Her father Chris is the son of UConn coach Geno Auriemma’s high school coach, the legendary and late Buddy Gardler. Her mom Katie was a star at Saint Joseph’s University as was her dad.

And as for us in the media, instead of housed right at floor level where out-of-bounds plays with competitors on rare occasions come flying over the working media seats, the only known previous risk to some sort of injury, we are using the sky boxes high above the arena, wearing masks except to dine from provided box lunches, and when the games end, we stay right where we are, jumping on the exact same zoom press conference feed I could, like virtually every event for the past year, access from my apartment.

So, why come?

Jokingly, besides the several dining establishments on the property missed over the summer with the WNBA team and the rest of the league competing in the bubble arrangement in Florida, I’m here for the privilege of putting that dateline at the top of this posting.

I’m here, as it turns out, for the privilege along with the rest of those not nearing less than six feet away of observing the games live and thus of being roughly two minutes ahead of the world-wide TV streaming audience to eyewitness what happens here.

And so it was after what had been in the opening game, the Top-ranked UConn 77-41 demolition of St. John’s — some things never change, per the perfect run to date in their return to the Big East, — that a prohibitively underdog fifth-seeded Villanova group in a roller-coaster affair rallied and struck down in overtime the No. 25 and three-time champion 78-72. It’s the first time the Blue Demons (14-8) have ever been knocked out of the Big East tourney they’re first day of competition.

The unfortunate prize for the Wildcats (15-5) in the semifinal round Sunday afternoon is a 3 p.m. date on FS1 with UConn (21-1).

But unlike Dillon’s squad, which has little time to bask in the accomplishment, there’s enough time here to reflect what occurred.

Back when she guided Drexel to that CAA title and ensuing sole automatic NCAA bid for the program, the Dragons were the favorite that season and Dillon had Marginean.

Now over here in the present, Dillon inherited from her Villanova coach, the retired Harry Perretta, whom she succeeded, the gift that is sophomore Maggie Siegrist, who is one of five finalists for the Katrina McClain award for the top power forward.

Siegrist, the Big East’s scoring and rebounding champion, double doubled her way to 30 points — 10 in overtime — to go with 11 rebounds. 

Her overtime total was two more than the enitre DePaul squad.

“We’re fired up to pull that win off,” Dillon said afterwards. “I thought our team with the exception of that first quarter did everything we needed to give ourselves a chance to win, 

“They kept their heads and even going into overtime and just a calm presence from this one (Siegrist) leading the team with her play and confidence in her play. I told her I just felt she kept the team together and kept the team poised from start to finish.

“You get big wins like this when you’re leader is charging the force. So good stuff for the ‘Cats.”

Back in the preseason, short or long as it was, when Villanova was picked sixth by the Big East coaches, Dillon said it might be a year or two before getting the team to perform in her vision, which meant shifting on offense to an increased tempo then the trademark patient live by the 3 approach from Perretta in his 42 years on the Main Line with the program.

But development came quicker as the season got under way. The five losses were one each to DePaul (94-82) and UConn (90-52)  a sweep by Marquette (95-77, 65-47) , and last weekend’s upset setback at home to Seton Hall (87-55) , whom the Wildcats (78-71) had beaten earlier up at the Pirates’ Walsh Gym in South Orange, N.J.

“The camaraderie, we saw it early with this group — getting here with Maddie and the year she had last year (Big East freshman of the year) and getting Brianna Herlihy back from injury, and Sarah Mortensen being eligible to play. I think from the beginning, they set the tone, being the one, two, three punch. And that’s what we saw today.

“We had our ups and downs. A lot of players stepping up as the year went on. I think just continuing to battle to get better, which you want to see. 

“So it helped, but you got a lot on the defensive end from every player who stepped on the floor. And that’s been our greatest growth this season. And especially in the past — over the last month.

Villanova also had to shake off several pause stretches of cautionary measures reacting to positive test results under COVID-19 protocols.

“Each player brings something to the game and you’re seeing it in practice,” Dillon said.

DePaul jumped to a 22-12 lead in the first quarter before Villanova rallied with a 25-14 burst the next before growing a ten-point lead during an 18-9 advantage in the third. But the Blue Demons held Segriest scoreless in the fourth before she took over after the Demons scored the first points of the extra period.

The Wildcats sank 11 treys to seven from DePaul.

Herlihy had 19 points, while Mortensen scored 11.

DePaul’s Deja Church scored 19 points, and Sonya Morris scored 16, Jorie Allen scored 11, and Lexi Held had 10.

“I don’t know we’ve defended the way I like our teams to defend,” DePaul coach Doug Bruno said when asked to contrast the win over the Wildcats in Chicago in December and Saturday’s loss. The Demons have also been on a recent slide, to the point the expected match for Saturday was Villanova playing the same Pirates’ squad from a week ago until Butler’s upset of the Demons dropped DePaul into the fourth seed.

That becomes a break, giving Villanova at least one signature win to place before the NCAA committee when it meets next weekend to create the bracket it will introduce on Selection Monday, March 15, at 7 p.m, on ESPN.

“Our players understand if I’m going to give them a green light to shoot quickly, that they have to defend. And I don’t know if we ever bought into that concept the entire year,” Bruno said.

“When we’re making shots and not defending, we’re okay. But when we’re missing shots and not defending, we’re not okay.

“The supporting cast of ‘Nova did a really good job. Good bless Raven James. I don’t know if anybody’s really given her credit in her time at ‘Nova. All she does is make big shots when she needs to. And Raven James has done that at ‘Nova the last couple of years.”

In the opening Connecticut rout, the Huskies (22-1), whose only loss was a narrow non-conference one at Arkansas in late January, picked up their 12th straight win.

Paige Bueckers, the Big East freshman of the year, had 17 points, while Olivia Nelson-Odada, the conference co-defender of the year, had 10 points and 11 rebounds.

Unique Drake and Lelani Correa each scored seven for the Red Storm (8-15).

“It’s good to be back in the Big East tournament, there’s always been something special about it,” Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. “Today, our team defense was exceptional. Exactly what I expected (of the freshmen). Everyone we put into the game, succeeded.”

On the other side of the bracket, sending the other two teams to the 6 p.m. contest on FS1, second-seeded Marquette advanced with a 68-43 win over seventh-seeded Providence, while sixth-seeded Creighton upset third-seeded Seton Hall 83-76.

In the Marquette game, the Golden Eagles (18-5) dominated virtually the entire way over the Friars (7-14) as Lauren Van Kleunen had 17 points for Marquette, and Camryn Taylor scored 12.

Chanell Williams had 12 points for the Friars and Alyssa Geary scored 10.

“We knew we had to be good, defensively,” said Marquette coach Megan Duffy, a former Notre Dame star. “I thought our toughness at times was pretty exciting to see. We held them to 30 percent shooting.

“One of our goals today was to kind of wear them out after a tough game they had yesterday. And I thought we did a pretty nice job of controlling the pace and being in control most of the game.”

In the remaining game, Creighton (9-10)  had to rally from a 12-point deficit to the Pirates. Temi Cardi had a second-straight career-high, scoring 29 points, while Emma Ronsiek scored 20 and Morgan Maly scored 18.

“I’m really proud of (Temi) and the way she’s led this team, because I think we’re so young,” said Creighton coach Jim Flannery. “Except for her, we’re inexperienced. And to get the kind of effort to get the win tonight, is certainly a testament because what she;s provided in a elementary way.

“It’s a great win for us and we’re excited to get an opportunity to play a really, really good team tomorrow night.

Desiree Elmore scored 22 for the Pirates (14-7), while Lauren Park-Lane scored 19, as did Andra Espinoza-Hunter.

Maryland Claims Outright Title at Expense of Penn State: The host Terrapins involved the only other Guru world local who played Saturday, with No. 8  Maryland downing Penn State 88-61 in the XFINITY Center in College Park, Md., to claim the Big Ten regular season crown outright and help set the pairings for next week’s tournament in Indianapolis.

Chloe Bibby had 15 points and nine rebounds for Maryland 21-2, 17-1 Big Ten), which shared regular season crowns in 2017 and 2020 to go with outright titles in 2015, 2016, 2019, and 2021, with Ohio State getting an outright in 2018.

Diamond Miller added 14 points, while Ashley Owusu and Mimi Collins each scored 12.

Terrapins coach Brenda Frese excepted her net-cutting rule usually reserved for the postseason, citing the pandemic and remembering how quickly the NCAA tourneys were shelved last season.

The home team had 28 points off 23 turnovers by Penn State (9-14, 6-13) and extended the win streak to ten.

Nia Beverly had 15 points for the Lady Lions while Makenna Marisa had 10 points,

In other Big Ten finishes, Iowa (15-8, 11-8) beat Nebraska 83-75 as Caitlin Clark, a freshman, hit the 30s for the 11th time with 35 on the Cornhuskers (11-11, 9-10). No. 10 Indiana at home beat Purdue 74-59, while No. 12 Michigan edged Northwestern.

The bracket is all set for the tourney at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. 

No. 1 seed Maryland gets a double bye and opens Thursday against the winner of No. 8 Nebraska and No. 9 Minnesota. No. 2 Indiana will play 6:30 p.m. No. 7 Michigan State and No. 10 Penn State. Rutgers gets a three seed, it’s highest in seven years of conference membership, opening after the Indiana game playing No. 6 Iowa or No. 11 Purdue. No. 4 Michigan, the last of the four top seed, will play Thursday against 5th seed Northwestern, No. 12 Illinois, or No. 13 Wisconsin.

And that’s the report.   



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