‘Nova strong in come-from-behind win

Cailin Brophy

The Wildcats overcame an early barrage in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament against No. 15 St. Francis (Pa.) en route to their third consecutive first-round win Sunday night.

In its first game since its shocking upset over UConn in the Big East Championship, ‘Nova withstood an early 9-12 spurt from the floor by the Red Flash and was able to pull away in the second half, winning 51-36.

The Red Flash were indeed red hot from the tip-off, jumping out to an early 21-8 lead, feeding off a defensive pressure that had the ‘Cats out of rhythm and out of sync. Senior Trish Juhline was ‘Nova’s only reliable option on offense in the opening moments, scoring the first eight points for her squad.

“I did not think that this was going to be a typical No. 2, No. 15 match-up,” ‘Nova head coach Harry Perretta said. “We’re not the type of team that can athletically overwhelm anyone, no matter who we play.”

The Wildcats regained their focus at the 11:32 mark, going on a 12-0 run to tie the contest with under two minutes remaining in the opening stanza, knotting the game at 23-all at the break.

The second half was all ‘Nova, however, as the ‘Cats held St. Francis to a mere 13 points while outscoring the Red Flash by 15. The ‘Cats’ stingy defense held Red Flash center Beth Swink, who had been averaging 24.3 points over her last eight games, to seven points on a three-for-nine effort from the field.

‘Nova was able to punish St. Francis on the boards as well, with do-everything forward Courtney Mix grabbing a career-high 15 off the glass. Mix fell just four rebounds short of the NCAA Mid-East Regional record, while finishing the game with 10 points, five assists and two blocks.

“We just couldn’t box her out,” St. Francis head coach Myndi Hill said of Mix’s effort. “She’s a tremendous player and she was a superstar on the boards tonight.”

Seniors Katie Davis and Juhline joined Mix in scoring double figures, as Davis led her squad with 15 on a 6-12 effort from the floor to go along with three assists. Juhline scored over 10 points for the 29th time in 31 games, chipping in 12 and dishing out seven assists.

Senior Carlin Chesick was the only Red Flash player to notch double figures, ending her collegiate career with 15 points and eight rebounds.

The slow and steady ‘Cats were able to control the pace of the game yet again, holding their opponent to under 50 points for the eleventh time on the season. St. Francis’ 36 points was the lowest by any Villanova opponent this year.

“We just had to grind the game out and fortunately we were able to get enough shots at the end to win the game,” Perretta said. “Our defense has been saving us all year and it saved us today.”

Despite the fact that St. Francis was able to give ‘Nova a scare throughout much of the first half, the highly-seeded and highly-touted ‘Cats maintained that their lack of intensity early on was not a result of underestimating their opponent.

“I don’t think it’s possible for us to overlook a team because we know what we are and our coaches prepare us so well for each opponent,” Juhline said.

The ‘Cats will have two nights to prepare for their next challenge, which will be a second round matchup against the winner of the George Washington/Oklahoma contest. Although George Washington has the higher seeding, the ‘Cats can count on a tough battle with either opponent. Villanova lost in the second round of the tournament last year to eventual national finalist Oklahoma on the Sooners’ home court at the Lloyd Noble Center. Oklahoma did, however, lose three of its starters from last year to graduation and the WNBA. Game time is set for 7:14 tomorrow.