Villanova Wildcats

With another Penn Relays win, Villanova's Siofra Cleirigh Buttner aims to keep pace with greats

usa-siofra-cleirigh-buttner.jpg
USA Today Images

With another Penn Relays win, Villanova's Siofra Cleirigh Buttner aims to keep pace with greats

Siofra Cleirigh Buttner was on the shoulder of Stanford's Elise Cranny, and then she wasn't.

Once again Villanova's middle-distance dynamo had found a gear few possess. Once again she powered to the front of the pack and led the Wildcats to a Penn Relays victory — this one, in Friday's 4-by-1,500 relay, was their second in as many days — and once again she was at a loss to explain it all.

"It seems like I get the same question every time," she said. "For me, I just listen to my legs."

And so she did, anchoring the victorious relay with a blistering 4:11.03 leg. The Wildcats, clocked at 17:25.85, won this race for the second straight year and 11th time in all. They also gave fifth-year senior Angel Piccirillo her eighth career victory, a women's record for the Relays.

The performance by Buttner, a junior, was nothing Wildcats coach Gina Procaccio hadn't seen before. After she ran a strong 800-meter leg to key the 'Cats to a victory in Thursday's distance medley relay (see story), Procaccio talked about her "amazing turnover, to go from zero to 60."

"I've never had an athlete accelerate like she has," she said.

Surely that burst comes in part from her homeland. A native of Dublin, Ireland, she talked about running lush, green hills as a teenager.

"I think that just made me a lot faster," she said.

And it comes in part from the event itself.

"When you come here," Procaccio said, "you just become a different being."

But no small part of it comes because of the push Buttner's teammates give her, and the tireless pursuit — on her part, and everyone else's — of the stars who preceded her at VU.

Be assured she doesn't want to drop that baton, any more than she does a real one.

In Friday's relay, she was preceded by sophomore Bella Burda, Piccirillo and another soph, Nicole Hutchinson, the last of whom saw Stanford's Christina Aragon nudge into the lead shortly before the exchange.

And for over three laps, Buttner was content to ride Cranny's shoulder. Her parents and sister were looking on. So too was Procaccio, who fretted a bit, knowing that Buttner's best event is the 800, while Cranny had run a sub-4:12 mile this year, and a sub-4:10 last spring.

"I was hurting that last 800," Buttner said, "but I knew that she was hurting, too."

She also knew she had enough in reserve — that indeed she always does. And sure enough she blew past Cranny with 200 meters remaining, and that was that. The Wildcats won by nearly two seconds.

"I just have full confidence in myself," she said, "and remember what I'm doing it for and who I'm doing it for."

Folks like Piccirillo, a close friend.

"There's no one more deserving (of the record) than Angel," said Buttner, who has won five wheels herself at the Relays.

She followed what she called "the Irish Pipeline" to Villanova, the one laid by Ronnie Delany, Eamonn Coghlan and Marcus O'Sullivan years ago, and during a campus visit got some idea of the import of the Relays when she saw hundreds of wheels lining the walls of one of the school's sports palaces.

"I'd already known a little bit about the Penn Relays," she said, "but once I saw that I really understood the big story behind it."

So she came over. And here's another tribute to her speed — she outran homesickness.

"I don't think when you're a student-athlete, you have time to be homesick," she said.

Buttner reiterated something Procaccio said after Friday's race — that she is following in the footsteps of departed star Steph Schappert, just as Piccirillo and Schappert were following Emily Lipari and Nicky Akande, and Lipari and Akande were tracking Sheila Reid.

The chase is ongoing. And Buttner is forever listening to her legs, forever ready to put it into overdrive.

Up-and-down week has Villanova steady in AP poll

usa-jay-wright-villanova-xavier.jpg
USA Today Images

Up-and-down week has Villanova steady in AP poll

For the second week in a row, Jay Wright's Villanova squad endured a stunning upset and then followed it up with a statement victory.

And for the second week in a row, the Wildcats held steady in the AP Poll.

After falling 76-71 at Providence on Valentine's Day and then forcefully handling No. 4 Xavier 95-79 in enemy territory on Saturday, Villanova checks in at No. 3 in the AP Poll for the second straight week. This after the 'Cats spent the five weeks prior sitting pretty as the No. 1 team in the land.

The commanding victory at Xavier wasn't enough to propel Villanova ahead of No. 1 Virginia and No. 2 Michigan State. The Cavaliers received 42 first-place votes and the Spartans received 19 first-place votes. The Wildcats garnered four first-place votes for themselves.

Xavier held firm at No. 4 and Duke checked in at No. 5 to round out this week's top five.

March is looming and that means the Big East grind is winding down. The Wildcats, 11-3 in conference play and sitting in second place in the Big East behind 12-3 Xavier, own the tiebreaker over the Musketeers after Saturday's win. They have four regular-season contests left, starting with a home date vs. DePaul on Wednesday night. This week ends with a trip to Creighton on Saturday afternoon.

Take care of business and once again it looks like the Big East goes through Villanova, which has won the last four Big East regular-season titles.

Bridges leads Villanova to massive road win over fellow top-5 team

usa-omari-spellman-villanova-xavier.jpg
USA Today Images

Bridges leads Villanova to massive road win over fellow top-5 team

BOX SCORE 

CINCINNATI — With the Big East's bragging rights at stake, Villanova showed it's not ready to relinquish its reign.

Mikal Bridges led an early 3-point shooting spurt that put Villanova in control, and the third-ranked Wildcats beat No. 4 Xavier 95-79 on Saturday in a showdown for control of the league.

As it has nearly every time, this one went to `Nova.

The Wildcats (24-3, 11-3) have won all four regular-season titles since the league was reconfigured. Xavier (24-4, 12-3) had a chance to take control of the race, but simply wasn't up to the Wildcats' level in the biggest game of the season.

Now, Xavier's lead is down to a half-game and Villanova has swept the head-to-head series.

"I think we wanted to send ourselves a message, not necessarily about the title race but about playing Villanova basketball," said Dante DiVincenzo, who finished with 21 points. "We knew we weren't playing Villanova basketball."

Bridges scored 25 points in a balanced attack that got the best of a matchup between the league's top offenses. Trevon Bluiett had 26 points for Xavier, which had its nine-game winning streak snapped. Villanova made a season-high 16 3-pointers, the most ever by a Xavier opponent.

"They hit a lot of tough 3s, but we've just got to play tougher," said Xavier's Naji Marshall, who had 11 points. "When you play elite teams, there's little margin for error."

The Wildcats ended their three-game shooting slump by making 11 3s in the first half, when they pulled out to a 19-point lead and silenced a raucous crowd at the Cintas Center, where Xavier had been undefeated this season.

"We came out together and played harder than we usually do," Bridges said. "We've got to keep that up. We can't settle. We can't relax."

Bluiett led a second-half surge that cut it to 64-61 with 11 minutes left before Bridges' basket blunted the comeback. Xavier had a pair of turnovers, and DiVincenzo hit back-to-back 3s as the Wildcats rebuilt their lead to double digits and pulled away.

"When they shoot the ball the way they did today, it will take a monumental effort to beat them," Xavier coach Chris Mack said.

In the end, it was like the last four games between the league's heavyweights. Villanova has won 10 of 11 against Xavier in the Big East, the last four by margins of 25, 22, 24 and 16 points. Xavier hadn't lost since an 89-65 defeat at Villanova on Jan. 10.

Big picture
Villanova: The Wildcats rely on their 3-point shooting but had been in a slump the last three games, going 17 of 71 from beyond the arc. They had their worst game of the season during a 76-71 loss at Providence , going 3 of 20. Villanova went 11 of 19 from beyond the arc in the first half on Saturday. After missing their first seven 3-point tries in the second half, they found their mark and pulled away, finishing 16 of 34.

Xavier: The Musketeers came out overly aggressive -- three fouls in the first 26 seconds -- and missed eight of their first 12 shots, including several layups. They've had bad first halves in their last four games against the Wildcats, leading to the double-digit losses.

"We were excited playing `Nova in our gym," Marshall said. "I think we came out a little too excited."

Big win
It was the second-largest win by Villanova against a Top-5 team under coach Jay Wright, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Getting heated
Villanova's Omari Spellman and Xavier's Paul Scruggs got technical fouls for yelling at each other during the Musketeers' comeback in the second half. The two had to be separated.

Big matchup
It was only the second time in the Cintas Center's 18-year history that a pair of Top 5 teams faced off. The other time resulted in Xavier's only win over Villanova in Big East play. The No. 5 Musketeers beat the No. 1 Wildcats 90-83 on Feb. 24, 2016.

Moving up
Bluiett surpassed David West for second place on Xavier's career scoring list with 2,140 points.

Up next
Villanova: Wildcats host DePaul on Wednesday, followed by games at Creighton and Seton Hall before finishing at home against Georgetown.

Xavier: Musketeers play at Georgetown on Wednesday. They beat the Hoyas in overtime 96-91 at the Cintas Center on Feb. 3. They finish at home against Providence -- one of the teams that beat them -- and at DePaul.