Villanova Wildcats

Villanova races to women's DMR championship in first day of Penn Relays

Courtesy of Penn Relays

Villanova races to women's DMR championship in first day of Penn Relays

Near the midway point of the women's distance medley relay college championship at the 123rd running of the Penn Relays on Thursday, it probably looked to some like it was anybody's race with five schools bunched together.

What a silly thought.

As is its habit, Villanova took control of the DMR and sped to its 15th all-time championship in one of the marquee events of the famed three-day meet at Franklin Field.

The Wildcats clocked in at 10:53.97 — the eighth-best time in Penn Relays history.

"What can I say? All I have to do is pretty much get them to the starting line," head coach Gina Procaccio said. "These girls know what the tradition is all about with Villanova in the Penn Relays. We definitely wanted this DMR."

After strong opening legs in the 1200 from sophomore Nicole Hutchinson (3:21.39) and the 400 from freshman McKenna Keegan (54.05), junior Siofra Cleirigh Buttner broke away from the pack right in front of Villanova's cheering section, handing the baton to anchor Angel Piccirillo with a comfortable lead. 

Buttner ran her 800 leg in 2:05.78 before Piccirillo ran the closing mile in 4:32.76 as Villanova fended off serious challenges from Penn State and Notre Dame, which finished in second and third, respectively.

"She's got amazing turnover to go from 0 to 60," Procaccio said of Cleirigh Buttner. "I've never had an athlete that's able to accelerate the way she does."

The Villanova coach admitted the third leg seemed a little slow at first as Columbia and Indiana joined Villanova, Penn State and Notre Dame in the lead pack. Buttner thought the same thing as she was running — and then decided to do something about it.

"I was trying to wait a little longer," the junior said. "I just thought it was just too slow. And right before 300, my legs just wanted to go."

Although Notre Dame and Penn State never went away, opening up the kind of lead she did for Piccirillo essentially ended the race. One of the most accomplished runners in the program's illustrious history, Piccirillo tied a Penn Relays record with her seventh women's championship, sharing it with fellow Villanovans Michelle Bennett and Kathy Franey.

She could own the record all to herself before her final Penn Relays ends as Villanova will compete for championships in the 4x1500 Friday and the 4x800 on Saturday.

"Down the line, Nicole, McKenna, Siofra were all running so fast, everyone's splits were on," Piccirillo said. "I saw that and it was getting me excited. I was like, 'They're all gonna go and I'm gonna go and we're gonna win it no matter what.' Then to see Siofra open up a gap, I was like, 'Even better, we're gonna make it decisive.'"

Anchoring the winning DMR was particularly gratifying for Piccirillo, who missed last year's meet because she redshirted with plantar fasciitis. That decision wasn't an easy one but Procaccio said she was "glad it paid off" with Piccirillo returning in top form and helping 'Nova avenge a loss to Georgetown in last year's DMR — a race that snapped Villanova's four-year winning streak in the event.

"I've been waiting for this weekend since probably November," said Piccirillo, who attended last year's Penn Relays as a fan and was "screaming my head off" during the Wildcats' win in the 4x1500. "I've been ready to go. It's just a great feeling to be back here for one last win with these girls."

Piccirillo will have a couple more days to enjoy the Penn Relays as the meet concludes with a full slate of events Friday and Saturday. But nothing beats winning the DMR — consistently one of the most exciting events at the country's oldest and largest track meet.

"Everyone knows the tradition," Procaccio said. "The DMR is the most prestigious relay, to be able to get four different disciplines in one relay. And Villanova is kind of synonymous with the DMR."

Penn also had a strong showing in Thursday's DMR, finishing in sixth place with a time of 11:15.76. Earlier in the day, the host Quakers set a school record in a 4x100 relay heat with a time of 45.21 seconds to advance to Friday's final.

Villanova romps past Radford in 1st round of NCAA Tournament

USA Today Images

Villanova romps past Radford in 1st round of NCAA Tournament


PITTSBURGH — The fear naturally seeps into the thinking of players on top-seeded teams in the NCAA Tournament. Could we be the ones that finally lose to a 16 seed?

"I can't say it doesn't cross our mind at all," Big East player of the year Jalen Brunson said.

The answer from Villanova was an emphatic one: not a chance.

Brunson scored 16 points and No. 1 seed Villanova hit 14 3-pointers in an 87-61 romp over Radford in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday night.

The Highlanders (23-13) posed no threat at becoming the first 16 seed to ever knock off a No. 1 in the tournament.

Villanova (31-4) played to near-perfection for the first 30 minutes and everyone played a role. Mikal Bridges had 13 points, Eric Paschall scored 11 and Omari Spellman had 10 points and seven rebounds.

The Wildcats play on Saturday against the winner of Virginia Tech-Alabama.

Radford, out of rural southwest Virginia, must have felt like it was playing against ace pop-a-shot players. Villanova led 69-37 with 11:45 left and was shooting 75 percent (25 of 34) overall and 60 percent (12 of 20) from 3-point range.

The Wildcats turned an NCAA Tournament game into a glorified scrimmage.

Villanova coach Jay Wright was a bit wary of what could happen when he watched Penn give No. 1 seed Kansas a brief scare earlier in the day.

"We're watching Penn, because my daughter goes to Penn. My wife's rooting like crazy for Penn," he said. "I said, `You're rooting for Penn. If that happens, my boy, (KU coach) Bill Self, will be dying.' But you do, you think about it. What you have to do when you're the 1 (seed) is do everything to fight off that distraction."

Radford's Christian Bradford opened the game with a 3-pointer and the bench erupted.

The players should hope someone snapped a photo of the scoreboard as a souvenir for the one time the Highlanders led Villanova in this game.

The rest of the half was pure dominance by the Wildcats.

At one point, Brunson had 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting. Radford? Just 10 points on 4 of 20 from the floor.

Villanova started the game shooting 13 of 16. For those who struggle with math, that's a crisp 81 percent.

Phil Booth, Bridges, Brunson and Donte DiVincenzo all hit 3s in succession to blow open the game. Even when the Wildcats put the ball on the floor, they embarrassed Radford — Collin Gillespie juked guard Donald Hicks about out of his sneakers and the Highlander fell right on his behind.

Hicks led Radford with 13 points.

"They are a No. 1 seed for a reason. But this team right here is special," Bradford said. "We're a championship team for a reason. We never thought in our mind that we couldn't come back."

Radford won a First Four game to advance to Pittsburgh. The Wildcats just won the Big East Tournament in New York. With more shooting performances like this one, they'll win much, much more in March.

Big picture
Radford: The Highlanders still had a successful season. They set a school record for wins and won an NCAA Tournament game for the first time in program history. Radford was picked to finish seventh in the Big South preseason poll but earned the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament. Carlik Jones and Ed Polite are freshmen and should keep the good times going next season.

Villanova: Will try to avoid another first-weekend upset. The Wildcats lost in the first weekend as a 1 or 2 in 2010, 2014, 2015 and 2017. They lost to NC State in the second round in 2015 in Pittsburgh in a game that spawned the birth of the sad Villanova band member nicknamed Piccolo Girl .

Time’s up
Paschall led the Wildcats with 29 minutes played. Wright pulled his starters and his top subs off the bench much earlier than usual to give them some needed rest. Brunson took a charge late in the game and, though Wright admired the guard's toughness, he wouldn't play much longer.

Totally Rad
Coach Mike Jones brought his team toward the Radford cheering section and waved and pointed toward the fans in appreciation.

"They didn't get a chance to cheer victory but at least they got a chance to cheer these young men," Jones said. "They got a great group of young men. Through the tournament, people got to learn a little bit more about them, but we got to be with them every day."

Up next
Radford goes home and the Wildcats try and knock off Virginia Tech (21-11) or Alabama (19-15) and advance again to the Sweet 16.

Breaking down Villanova's path, chances to make Final Four

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Breaking down Villanova's path, chances to make Final Four

Villanova's quest for its second national championship in the last three years begins Thursday. 'Nova, the No. 1 seed in the East Region for the third time in four years, takes on Radford in the first round.

Villanova's chances
Villanova is the favorite to win its region. In fact, Vegas bookmakers have installed the Wildcats as the overall favorite to win the national championship. There are several reasons for that vote of confidence. First and foremost, Villanova is really good. The Wildcats have two of the best players in the country in Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges. Factor in Donte DiVincenzo, Phil Booth, Omari Spellman and Eric Paschall, and Villanova has as much talent as anyone. This is the best offensive team Jay Wright has had at Villanova. This season the Wildcats averaged over 87 points and shot 50.4 percent from the field. They improved significantly defensively toward the end of the season, holding their last five opponents to an average of 69 points.

The Wildcats are also healthy for the first time since early December. Booth and Paschall both missed significant time in February, resulting in a 3-3 stretch for Villanova. But 'Nova won its last five games as Wright settled on an eight-man rotation featuring a heavy reliance on his starters and DiVincenzo. Barring foul trouble, freshmen Collin Gillespie and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree should see limited minutes in the tournament.

Player to watch
This distinction goes to Alabama freshman Collin Sexton, who Villanova could face in the second round Saturday. Sexton will be a lottery pick in the 2018 NBA draft. He's an explosive lead guard tailor-made for the NBA. Sexton averages 19 points and took it up a notch last weekend, averaging 26.3 points the SEC Tournament. The second round has been a stumbling block for Villanova in recent years. Sexton has the ability to put a serious scare into the Wildcats if Alabama can get past Virginia Tech.

Tournament coaches
NCAA Tournament-tested coaches go a long way toward success. There are several such coaches in 'Nova's region. Wright has won 21 NCAA Tournament games, leading the Wildcats to five Sweet 16 appearances, two Final Fours and a national championship in 2016. This will be West Virginia coach Bob Huggins' 24th NCAA Tournament. Like Wright, Huggins has coached in two Final Fours — one each with WVU and Cincinnati. Then there's Wichita State's Gregg Marshall, who will be coaching in his 14th NCAA Tournament. Marshall led Wichita State to the Final Four in 2013 and the Sweet 16 in 2015.  

Delayed matchup?
If seeding holds, Villanova would play No. 2 seed Purdue in the regional final. A lot of people expected this matchup to take place back in November at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, but Purdue was upset by Tennessee in the first round. Villanova and Purdue did meet in November 2016, with the Wildcats winning 79-76 on the Boilermakers' home court. If these two teams meet in the Elite Eight, Villanova will have to contend with Purdue's 1-2 punch of sharp-shooting guard Carsen Edwards and 7-2 big man Isaac Haas. 

Villanova takes advantage of a favorable draw and advances to its second Final Four in the last three years. The Wildcats will handle Radford and contain Sexton and Alabama in the second round. They'll survive a tough test from WVU in the Sweet 16 before beating Purdue in the Elite Eight. From there it's on to the Final Four, where a whole new set of challenges will await.