Villanova after Maddy Siegrist — Queen Egbo talks WNBA, Athletes Unlimited

The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, Jan. 10, 2024

VILLANOVA, PA — The last time I entered the gleaming basketball palace that is Finneran Pavilion, Maddy Siegrist still played for the Villanova Wildcats, and the NCAA Tournament game I came to cover was a sellout.

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The city of Philadelphia, as I wrote at the time, was Maddy-mad. And so as I made my way to the Georgetown-Villanova game held on Wednesday morning, I wondered just how it would feel in the post-Siegrist era (well, on the court anyway, Maddy is working for the Wildcats during this offseason).

The answer is instructive. Parking was at a premium, the Pavilion packed, if a bit higher-pitched than on most nights. And Villanova has not fallen apart without the program’s all-time great, thank you very much. Mel Greenberg was here, of course, and so was Josh Verlin, who took today’s featured photo and whose City Of Basketball Love is an absolute must-read if you care about the sport.

There’s Christina Dalce, the best interior defender and rebounder in the BIG EAST, who has taken another step forward in both of her strengths. There’s shooters aplenty, Kaitlin Orihel and Maddie Webber and Moorestown’s own Bella Runyan, to punish teams who too aggressively double or pack the paint.

And then there’s Lucy Olsen, the junior guard who no less an authority than Geno Auriemma said was the best guard in the conference (non-UConn edition) back in October, before she exploded for an average of 23 points in her first 14 games of the 2023-24 season. (A WNBA talent evaluator concurred with Auriemma’s take this week.) She is making history at Villanova, entering Wednesday’s game averaging 23 per contest, and beating that average against the Hoyas, finishing with 28.

In essence, this is what many programs with transcendent figures face. And just as the myth that one player is here to “save” a program or a conference or a sport, the reality is akin to an ocean wave cresting. When it recedes, you still see the low tide is higher. And there’s another star, in this case Olsen, ready to step into the spotlight. I asked her whether she’d reckoned with the historic pace she’s on.

“Yeah, I got to go home a little bit for Christmas,” Olsen said, sitting at the podium in Finneran following the game. “That was nice. Yeah, I feel like I enjoy every night — I like to embrace everything. Because you never know what’s gonna happen. Having like all the kids there, the crowd — it was a fun environment. And I tried to enjoy every moment of it. Because, yeah, you do have to, I’m only here for four years.”

Villanova drew 1,741 fans to Finneran for Xavier last season, a weekday night game. This year, that figure was up to 2,341. Villanova played St. John’s at Madison Square Garden, and more than 12,000 fans showed up. Siegrist made fans for life, and many are back, and while they’re here they are marveling at Olsen and Dalce and the future Denise Dillon teams to come. Olsen is right, though: the individuals, the teams, they change fast. The programs, though: that’s what continues, generation to generation. Every Maddy Siegrist and Lucy Olsen makes sure of it.

Fans in Iowa are already prepared for the post-Caitlin Clark Era in similar ways. The folks who think women’s basketball is going to disappear when Clark leaves town are also ignoring the century in Iowa that came before her.

But Clark, and Siegrist, and A’ja Wilson at South Carolina, and Victoria Vivians at Mississippi State, and so many others before and since aren’t a binary switching on of the sport that ends when they leave, but rather a strengthening of the foundation. See the Siegrist art installation below for details.

The game itself was vintage Georgetown-Villanova. The Hoyas have banded together in the face of unimaginable tragedy, the loss of head coach Tasha Butts, and play together defensively in a way that keeps them in every game, 20th in the country entering Wednesday. I talked to Georgetown head coach Darnell Haney about it after the game.

“I think having basketball for all of us is a good thing. Right?,” Haney said, the two of us sitting along the baseline of the court following the game. “Having basketball means you’ve got other things to worry about.

“I was close with Tasha. And at the same time, she was she was struggling… [so] there’s an opportunity for us to continue to honor her by continuing to play Georgetown basketball. Continue to make sure that she is just a mainstay in the minds and alive in the hearts of these young women. That’s important.”

Kelsey Ransom is a tough, two-way guard. Graceann Bennett anchors the defense in the middle with the efficiency of movement you’d expect from a fifth-year senior. And Brianna Scott is such a fun, quick player, impossible to keep out of the paint with a basketball IQ worthy of her lineage. She finished with 13 points and 13 rebounds off the bench. The Hoyas are going to be tough all year.

This war of attrition ran into extra time. Dillon’s team did it’s customary great job on the top of the scouting report, holding Ransom to just 3-for-18 from the field in regulation. Olsen just keeps coming — it’s worth the trip to Villanova just to see her — but Georgetown made her work for her 28 points. Bennett and Dalce played even all afternoon. A contested Runyan miss at the buzzer sent the game into OT, but the drama was just beginning.

Sandwiched around a pair of tough finishes by Georgetown’s Mya Bembry in the final minute of OT, Olsen posted up inside, bounced off a double-team in the paint and finished off one foot, drawing a foul and burying the and-one to put the Wildcats ahead. The kids, the Harverford women’s basketball team, Will D. Cat and everyone else in the crowd went crazy.

It took every bit of Olsen’s 28 points for a 53-51 victory, Ransom’s halfcourt shot just short, bouncing off the front rim, Wildcat fans holding their heads in disbelief at how close it came. When it was over, Georgetown assistant Bella Alarie was offered the postgame book. The data-hungry Alarie nodded at first, then thought better of it. “I don’t need to see that yet,” she joked.

On the court, if Georgetown can start to win those consistent, close games their defense all but guarantees they will have all season, they will be a factor. For Villanova, if Dalce can reach another level of finishing at the rim, while Runyan regresses to the norm on her typically-excellent three-point shooting, the Wildcats should find their way back into the NCAA Tournament once again.

(And we’ll leave for another time how utterly perfect in size and ambience Finneran Pavilion would be for a WNBA team, but it sure would be…)

But anyone wondering how the Villanova program would fare in the post-Maddy Siegrist Era? They’re just fine, thank you. Siegrist’s legacy is those screaming young fans, back for more.

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This week in women’s basketball

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Five at The IX, Queen Egbo

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Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.