Villanova Wildcats

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

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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 moves up to No. 1 in the nation

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AP Images

Villanova moves up to No. 1 in the nation

If you're looking for a sliver of good news on a depressing day in Philly sports, Villanova is now the No. 1 team in the nation.

The 10-0 Wildcats moved up to the top spot in Monday's AP poll, receiving 41 of 65 first-place votes.

Michigan State, Wichita State, Duke and Arizona State round out the top five, in that order (see Top 25).

Duke, the unanimous No. 1 team the last two Mondays, lost 89-84 on Saturday at Boston College.

Last week's No. 2 team, Kansas, moved down to No. 13 after losing twice last week to Washington and Arizona State.

Villanova plays twice this week — at Temple on Wednesday for a Big 5 showdown, then vs. Hofstra on Friday night. Those are the Wildcats' last two non-conference games before they begin Big East play on Dec. 27 at DePaul.

Donte DiVincenzo, Phil Booth help No. 4 Villanova survive La Salle scare

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AP Images

Donte DiVincenzo, Phil Booth help No. 4 Villanova survive La Salle scare

BOX SCORE

Duke's run at No. 1 ended with a court-storming loss at Boston College and No. 2 Kansas wilted in a rare home loss.

Undaunted and undefeated, Villanova is charging toward the top spot.

"We played the next No. 1 team in the country," La Salle coach John Giannini said Sunday.

The Explorers got a taste of how tough it can be to knock off the Wildcats. La Salle scored more baskets, sank more 3-pointers, had more steals and still was just another victim in Villanova's unbeaten season.

Phil Booth scored 18 points and Donte DiVincenzo had 18 points and 10 rebounds to help the fourth-ranked Wildcats avoid an upset in a 77-68 win over La Salle.

"They don't have bad games," Giannini said.

This was as close as one gets for the Wildcats (10-0). They were sloppy -- throwing the ball away several times on outlet passes -- slumped from the 3-point line and could not shake the pesky Explorers until the final minutes of the game to win their 21st straight Big 5 game.

The Wildcats had depth and a massive edge from the free-throw line to sink the Explorers. La Salle (5-6) was a two-man show in B.J Johnson and Amar Stukes, and that was enough to give them a 62-61 lead with 4:47 left.

But the Wildcats had Booth and DiVincenzo, and Jalen Brunson scored 17 and Mikal Bridges, quiet all game, came to life for crucial baskets late to seal the win. Throw in the whopping disparity from the line -- Villanova made 27 of 35, La Salle was 4 of 5 -- and the Wildcats made their case for why they should fight it out with No 3. Michigan State (9-1) to become the new No. 1 team in the AP Top 25.

"It's a great lesson for our guys. The score isn't always what the game is really about," Villanova coach Jay Wright said.

Booth put the Wildcats ahead with three free throws and followed with an assist on DiVincenzo's 3-pointer that made it 67-62 and finally gave them a bit of breathing room. Bridges, coming off a career-high 28 points against Gonzaga, went inside for a pair of tough buckets and a 71-64 lead that brought the Villanova fans to their feet.

"These guys have played in these games. They're not surprised," Wright said.

Johnson led the Explorers with 21 points and Stukes had 16 to help keep slim hopes alive of pulling off a stunner. The duo combined to hit seven 3-pointers and carried La Salle to the brink of victory.

"When we're out there and we started making plays, we felt like we could do that against anybody," Stukes said. "The shots started falling. We just had to play defense."

The Wildcats beat No. 12 Gonzaga by 16 points this week at Madison Square Garden and were expected to roll against the Explorers at the Wells Fargo Center. The foundation for their perfect record had come from the 3-point line; the Wildcats hit a school-record 19 against Saint Joseph's and buried 10 against the Zags. Against the Explorers, the 3s dried up in the first half. Villanova missed its first six attempts and missed eight of 10 overall in the half.

La Salle went the opposite direction in the first half. Shooting a miserable 29 percent from 3-point range this season, the Explorers went 6 of 12 to take a 38-37 lead. Stukes hit two straight 3s and his bucket a tick before the horn gave La Salle the lead at the break.

Villanova, La Salle, Saint Joseph's, Temple and Penn make up the city series field. The Wildcats have emerged as the class of the city and haven't been defeated by a Philadelphia-area team since Temple won on Dec. 5, 2012.

Big picture
La Salle: The Explorers lost for the 15th time in the last 16 games against Villanova. But a lot of teams lose all the time to `Nova. It's what the Explorers do from here that will define their season. They have two more nonconference games to shape up before they open the Atlantic 10 season Dec. 30 against St. Louis. The Explorers haven't made the NCAA Tournament since 2013 and will need more consistent performances like they had in the first half to get there again this season.

Villanova: The Wildcats win again. Even when the score is close, the outcome never seems in doubt against a city school. Los Angeles Lakers rookie Josh Hart, one of the stars of the 2016 national championship team, sat courtside and earned a standing ovation as the alum of the game. He trash-talked Johnson in the second half and laughed when the La Salle forward buried a bucket after their exchange.

Ouch
Villanova played without G Collin Gillespie because of a left wrist injury suffered in practice.

Up next
La Salle: Hosts Mercer on Sunday.

Villanova: The Wildcats finish the Big 5 season Wednesday at Temple.