After not playing a game for 613 days, the Princeton Tigers stormed into the Finneran Pavilion on Wednesday night, defeating Villanova 59-42 in the 2021-22 season opener. This extends Princeton’s win streak to 23 games, the longest active streak in the NCAA.
Princeton’s smothering defense was too much for the ‘Cats. Villanova junior forward Maddy Siegrist, who was the Big East’s leading scorer a season ago with 22.8 points per game, finished with just 10 points on Wednesday night.
Junior guard Grace Stone was challenged with the defensive assignment of Siegrist for a majority of her minutes. Stone stuffed the stat sheet with a little of everything, tallying seven points, five rebounds, three assists, three steals and one block.
“We are always going to rely on our defense to be successful,” Princeton head coach Carla Berube said. “I thought Grace Stone did a really awesome job on Maddy Siegrist, it was a team effort, but Grace was on her a lot and did a great job.”
The rust and nerves that come with a season opener were evident in the opening minutes for both teams, with neither scoring a basket until the 6:26 mark, when Villanova’s Brianna Herlihy hit a three to get the ‘Cats on the board. The graduate forward had taken a charge on the previous play and sparked some momentum for the Wildcats on both ends of the floor.
The ‘Cats finished the quarter strong, leading the way 16-10 at the end of the first, despite only four points from Siegrist. Sophomore forward Lior Garzon hit a three as the quarter ended to extend the lead to six, Villanova’s largest and last lead of the night.
Princeton came out firing in the second quarter, going on an 8-0 run behind back-to-back threes from junior guard Julia Cunningham, giving the Tigers the lead. Sophomore guard Bella Runyan got to the line and went 1-of-2 to give the Wildcats their first point of the quarter.
Princeton scored four more points before sophomore junior guard Brooke Mullin responded with a three for Villanova. This was the only field goal for the ‘Cats in the quarter, who shot just 7.7% from the field in the period.
“We shot the ball terribly,” Villanova head coach Denise Dillon said. “It’s to their credit. I don’t think they gave us the looks that we wanted, a lot were rushed, even shots around the basket.”
Princeton outscored the Wildcats 20-4 in the second, leading 30-20 at the half. The Tigers led Villanova in every category in the first half, shooting 33.3% from the field to Villanova’s 23.3% and outrebounding the ‘Cats 26-23. Princeton also tallied nine second chance points and eight points off turnovers, while Villanova recorded just two and three points in the respective categories.
Garzon led the Wildcats at the break with six points and four rebounds, while Siegrist had just four points and four rebounds. Garzon, second on the team in three-pointers made last season, is a key player in Villanova’s offense.
In games like this, when Siegrist is facing double teams and denial defense, the ‘Cats will have to turn to players like Garzon for their offensive production.
“I think consistently what we’ve been seeing from Lior Garzon, she’s been showing some good stuff in practice and just improvement last year into this year, and Brianna Herlihy as well,” Dillon said when asked who would step up on off nights from Siegrist.
The Wildcats had chances in the second half, stringing together scores and stops at various points, even cutting it to seven in the third with a 8-0 run led by Siegrist and Herlihy.
Herlihy got her third personal foul with 4:38 left in the third quarter and had to come out of the game, stopping Villanova’s momentum. Princeton took advantage and quickly recovered their offensive flow, extending their lead to 15 by the end of the quarter.
Villanova pulled out all the stops in the fourth quarter, including a full court trapping press that resulted in a ten second violation, but it was not enough to counteract a scoreless Siegrist and six turnovers.
Princeton was led by senior guard Abby Meyers, who recorded a career-high 21 points and tallied nine rebounds and three assists as well. Cunningham was another key contributor for the Tigers, adding eleven points, six rebounds and three blocks.
Herlihy led the Wildcats with 12 points and eight rebounds, while Siegrist added ten points and nine rebounds of her own.
Villanova had five freshmen make their collegiate debuts, including guard Lucy Olsen, who started the game for the ‘Cats. Olsen was one of three newcomers to score for Villanova, finishing with seven points on 2-of-5 shooting. Christina Dalce and Kaitlyn Orihel added two and one point, respectively.
“They’re out there so they’re going to get experience quickly,” Dillon said. “We need them ready to go.”
As a team, the ‘Cats shot 26.3% from the field and 70% from the freethrow line. Plagued by Princeton's tenacious defense, the ‘Cats recorded 20 turnovers, tying their 2020-21 season high. Facing the No. 4 team in the country in their next contest, Villanova will need to make some adjustments on both ends of the floor.
The ‘Cats travel to Maryland on Friday, one of three straight road games for the team. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 P.M.