Miami women to face nation’s leading scorer, Villanova’s Siegrist, in Sweet 16 on Friday

Tribune Content Agency

MIAMI — Destiny Harden has been around college basketball long enough to know that the Miami Hurricanes are still considered underdogs against Villanova in the Sweet 16 Friday afternoon, even though they stunned top-seeded Houston on their home floor four days ago in one of the most thrilling games so far this March.

That’s fine, Harden said. They are happy to let the Wildcats and the nation’s leading scorer Maddie Siegrist shoulder the pressure in Greenville, S.C.

“We’re always going to be the underdogs, we’re the 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament right now and going against a No. 4 seed,” Harden said. “We’re just going to continue to play with a chip on our shoulder.

“There’s no pressure for us. Nobody expected us to win any games, so just to come out and play Miami basketball and continue to feed off each other, that would be enough for us.”

Miami guard Haley Cavinder, who transferred to UM from Fresno State with twin sister Hanna, is playing in her first NCAA Tournament. She agreed the Hurricanes feel little pressure, as this is their first Sweet 16 in 31 years.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of added pressure just because we are an underdog,” said Cavinder. “We’re a 9 seed. Coach always says we have nothing to lose, so just taking it all in and enjoying these moments.”

Cavinder, the social media influencer with 4 million TikTok followers, proved she could handle high-level pressure on the biggest stage when she sank two free throws with 12 seconds to go as Hoosiers fans chanted: “Stick to TikTok!”

The Hurricanes face a massive challenge on Friday (1:30 p.m., ESPN). They have to figure out a way to limit Siegrist, the all-time Villanova scoring leader for both men and women.

Siegrist, a 6-1 forward, is averaging 29.2 points per game and 9.1 rebounds. She has scored 20 or more points in all 36 games, 16 games of 30 points and she put up 50 points in February against Seton Hall

Asked if there is anyone who reminds her of Siegrist, Meier said Breanna Stewart, the 6-4 former UConn star who is a two-time WNBA champion and two-time league MVP.

“I had the fortune of coaching Stewie, Breanna Stewart, for two summers, USA Basketball,” Meier said. “We won two gold medals together. She’s extremely talented. There’s a lot of similarities there. A lot.

“I think the biggest similarity is you can defend her perfectly, you can be physical, you can deny the ball, whatever, but in the end, she’s going to calmly catch a ball and be able to race up and shoot over you, and there’s a not a heck of a lot you can do about that.”

Meier has watched a lot of tape of Siegrist and continues to be amazed.

“Some of her games this year have been astounding,” Meier said. “You just can’t believe what you’re watching. I’ve watched as many of them as I possibly could while still keeping my team in the zone that we’re in now.”

The Hurricanes are known for their grit and defense and will try to keep the Wildcats guessing.

“Luckily, we are a team that has a lot of defensive schemes, and we’ve played them against top teams the whole year,” Meier said. “They don’t know which one we’re going to pick, and that’ll be kind of the dance within the game there is how are we going to defend her and the rest of their great players.”

The Hurricanes also have a clutch player in Harden, who has come up with magical March moments two years in a row. Last year, in the ACC quarterfinals, Harden scored the game’s last 15 points and made a jumper at the buzzer to stun No. 4 Louisville. On Monday, she sealed the win over the Hoosiers with another jumper in the closing seconds.

In fact, Meier said Harden’s game winning shots against Louisville and Indiana were on the same exact call, different spot.

“She’s got these big eyes, and they’re big as saucers, and when she’s really locked in, they just get bigger and bigger and there’s just this immense amount of trust between Destiny and our staff,” Meier said. “Destiny is never going to let you down.”

Harden, a graduate student, is soaking in her first trip to the Sweet 16 and if called upon, will try to make more magic.

“It’s a blessing to be here, never been in this stage before, so I want to take advantage of this opportunity,” she said. “Just try to just go as far as we can and continue to make history.”