By DAN GELSTON AP Sports Writer
As Maddy Siegrist hugged and high-fived every Villanova fan down the front row of seats in a wild celebration following the biggest win of her career, it was hard for the All-American not to think about far the Wildcats have come in just four seasons.
Siegrist’s journey saw her dominate as the program’s career leading scorer, lead Villanova into the kind of elite team that can pack a postseason game in their own house and now this milestone, a Sweet 16 berth for the first time in 20 years.
“Everyone wants to leave their mark,” Siegrist said.
Siegrist sure left hers on the Main Line.
Siegrist scored 31 points, had four blocks, four steals and sent the winningest team in Villanova history into the Sweet 16 for the second time in program history with a 76-57 win over 12th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast on Monday night.
“What Maddy has done and continues to do is off the charts,” coach Denise Dillon said.
The fourth-seeded Wildcats (30-6) won their record 30th game and celebrated the March Madness milestone in front of another packed house at the Pavilion. Siegrist, the first-team AP All-American, made 13 of 24 shots in what was likely her final home game. The four-year star has left some wiggle room that she could return for a fifth season, but all signs point toward her playing in the WNBA this summer.
One thing is sure, Siegrist is headed to the Sweet 16.
The Wildcats are going for the first time since the 2003 team reached the Elite Eight — the coach of that team, Harry Perretta, watched this one from behind the basket — and they will No. 9 Miami, which upset No. 1 seed Indiana.
“To me, Villanova is a Final Four-level team,” FGCU coach Karl Smesko said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they get there.”
He’s not the only one. President Joe Biden picked the Wildcats to win it all in his March Madness bracket.
One sign from the student section said it all, “It’s On! March Maddyness.” Another fan shouted during halftime warmups, “No one can guard you, Maddy!”
Siegrist checked out to a rousing standing ovation with 1:57 left in the game and the star forward hugged every teammate down the bench. Her teammates mobbed her after the final horn as the Wildcats danced on the court and flashed the “V” sign for their fans.
“If this is my last game at home, this is a great way to go out,” Siegrist said.
Siegrist sank two free throws with 5:18 left in the third quarter to give her 21 points, which made it 36 straight games this season for the two-time Big East Player of the Year with at least 20 points.
The Wildcats actually scored the first eight points of the game before Siegrist got on the board. Siegrist may be the star who topped 1,000 points this season alone but she’s had plenty of help along the way.
Against the Eagles (33-4), it was Lucy Olsen’s shot to turn this one into another March victory. The 5-foot-9 guard who averaged 12.9 points scored nine in the first quarter. The Wildcats seemed poised to run away with this one, blocking FGCU’s first two shots, grabbing every rebound and loose ball raced to a 26-11 lead.
But a 3:28 scoreless drought trimmed Villanova’s halftime lead 39-33.
Here’s the thing, Siegrist wasn’t going to let Villanova lose on its home court and become the latest men’s or women’s tournament single-digit seed to suffer an upset. Ole Miss stunned top-seeded Stanford a night earlier to somewhat open up the women’s bracket.
With Hall of Fame coach Jay Wright watching from behind the team bench, the Wildcats showed again what makes them a dangerous matchup in March.
The nation’s leading scorer, Siegrist converted a three-point play and then picked the ball clean on a steal and layup that stretched Villanova’s lead to 46-33.
“She’s the best player,” Smesko said. “To game plan for her in one day is extraordinarily difficult.”
Each time FGCU tried to make a run, Siegrist and Olsen pushed back. Olsen buried a 3 late in the third for a 61-41 lead and the road to the Sweet 16 was completely clear. She finished with 23 points and 10 rebounds.
“I wouldn’t want to win it with anyone else,” Olsen said.
Florida Gulf Coast: Sha Carter led them with 11 points. The Eagles are looking for their first Sweet 16 in team history. They still have the record for overall wins in the tournament by a 12 seed with three.
“We were a little rattled,” Carter said.
Villanova: Dillon won her 400th career game and 71st at Villanova. She went 329-211 in 17 years at Drexel. The Wildcats won 24 of their final 26 home games. That helped them win 30 games, topping the 1981-82 team that went 29-4 and advanced to the AIAW Final Four.
The Wildcats are headed to Greenville, South Carolina for the Sweet 16.