‘Nova women fall in WNIT quarterfinal

Courtney Scrib

In a match-up between two talented (and arguably NCAA-slighted) teams, Western Kentucky prevailed over Villanova, 94-81, in the quarterfinal round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament on March 23.

Despite the Wildcats’ high-figure scoring, the Toppers controlled the entire game. The 94 points was the most Villanova had allowed in a game since a 102-55 loss to North Carolina State in its 1991-92 season opener.

“I looked up at the scoreboard, and we had 81 points, and we were never in the game,” Villanova head coach Harry Perretta said. “That is a tribute to how well [Western Kentucky] played.”

Shooting 64.8 percent (35-of-54) from the floor, including 8-of-9 from beyond the three-point arc, Western Kentucky (27-7) kept ‘Nova’s defense scrambling. Switching from zone to man-to-man and back again, the Wildcats (21-11) could not keep up with the speed or unstoppable shooting of their opponents – a problem that Perretta had anticipated even before the two teams stepped foot on the court.

“I thought coming into the game that we would have trouble guarding them off the dribble because they were just too fast for us,” Perretta said. “We tried to play them some zone, and they shot the ball real well from the perimeter. We got caught between a rock and a hard place.”

One of the Toppers’ perimeter shots came in the final play of the first half. With less than three seconds left to play, junior guard Tifany Zaragoza launched – and converted – a desperation heave from just in front of the mid-court line to give Western Kentucky a 50-33 advantage. It would be the Toppers’ largest lead of the game.

Zaragoza was just one of six Western Kentucky players to score in double figures. Sophomore forward and first team All-Sun Belt Conference player Crystal Kelly led all scorers with 28 points.

Despite the 21-point deficit, Villanova continued to battle back in the second half. During a critical stretch in which ‘Nova scored 20 points in a span of just under four minutes, the Wildcats made seven consecutive shots, four of which were three-pointers. Liad Suez-Karni began the run midway through the second half by connecting on back-to-back treys, while senior guard Courtney Roantree and redshirt freshman forward Lisa Karcic, who scored a career-high 16-points for the night, also contributed from long range.

However, the Toppers quickly responded with big shots of their own and led the Wildcats, 76-63, with a little over nine minutes left to play in regulation.

“We didn’t play good enough defense,” Suez-Karni said. “We weren’t as intense as we should have been.”

The senior forward finished the game with 22 points, 10 assists and a team-high eight rebounds. It was the 21st time, including the 10th time this season, that she reached 20 points.

In one last comeback effort, Villanova scored six straight points in 53 seconds to close the gap to 84-75 with 3:45 remaining. After a missed Villanova three-point attempt, however, the Toppers made eight free throws in the final three minutes to hold off the Wildcats and advance to the WNIT seminfinals.

While Western Kentucky head coach Mary Taylor Cowles told reporters that her team was not out to prove anything to NCAA officials, the Toppers’ performance last Thursday proved otherwise.

“If anybody has the most gripe about not being in the NCAA tournament, they do,” Perretta said after the game, “and they played that well tonight.”

In addition to ending Villanova’s 2005-06 season, the loss also marked the end of the collegiate careers of seven seniors who helped the Wildcats win 91 games and make four consecutive postseason appearances.

Suez-Karni, a native of Israel, finished her career with 1,274 points to earn her 12th place on the school’s all-time scoring list. Forward Kate Dessart Mager contributed 12 points on 6-of-8 shooting, while point guard Besty McManus added seven points and four assists in her final career game. Together guards Roantree and Jenna Viani collected eight points. Walk-on Frances Lamb and red shirt senior Sarita Hatcher also participated in their last game as Wildcats.

What this year’s Villanova squad lacked in size and athleticism, it made up for in heart and determination. The Wildcats won nine of their final 12 games and made history by becoming one of only two Big Five women’s teams to ever advance to the WNIT quarterfinals. This year was also the first year that Villanova had won a WNIT game in its seven consecutive postseason appearances.

“We were able to win 21 games, which is pretty good,” Perretta said. “We lack a lot of things, so you have to give the kids credit for what they did.”

Meanwhile, Western Kentucky, who captured the regular season Sun Belt Conference championship, saw its season come to a close on Tuesday night after falling to Kansas State 57-56 in the WNIT semifinals.