Gritty game secures Ephs’ NCAA bid

Women’s basketball (22-5, 9-1 in the NESCAC) earned its first berth in the NESCAC Tournament final last Sunday, challenging Amherst. The game’s first 20 minutes were tightly contested, but the Ephs defense stumbled in the second period, as the Jeffs walked away with the 53-38 victory and the NESCAC title. In Saturday’s semifinal, the women knocked off Middlebury in another close game. The Ephs clamped down on defense and hit some big shots to notch the 59-49 win.

Williams entered Sunday’s tournament final with high hopes. The women blew past Amherst in Williamstown two weeks prior, with an astounding 71-51 victory on Feb. 10. The first half of Sunday’s game, however, was much slower: It was incredibly hard fought on the defensive end, with each team turning the ball over about 10 times. Eph stars co-captain Claire Baecher ’13, Kellie Macdonald ’15 and Jennie Harding ’13 combined for only 23 of a possible 60 minutes due to injuries and foul trouble. Facing such fiery man-to-man defense, neither squad mustered better than 21-percent shooting from the floor. When the buzzer sounded, Williams entered the locker room down 17-18.

“The first half was two really good teams going all out,” Head Coach Pat Manning said. “It was low scoring, but I still felt good about where we were because our offense just hadn’t heated up yet.”

The women jumped out to a four-point lead two minutes into the second half behind a three from Harding, a lay-in from Macdonald and a pair of free throws from Baecher. In the subsequent minutes, however, Amherst lit it up on the offensive end. The women struggled to score, turning the ball over seven times. With around seven minutes to play, Amherst pushed its lead to double digits.

“In the second half we came out strong, but we weren’t able to sustain it,” Manning said. “Amherst is tough in their own gym, but it was still disappointing.”

Defense was the difference in this game, as the Ephs struggled to defend ball screens and contain the Jeffs’ shooting in the second half. “The momentum took over, and we let our frustration on offense affect our defense,” Manning said.

Amherst, for its part, was very tough defensively for all 40 minutes, holding Baecher to just six points, and the Ephs to 28.6-percent shooting. Ellen Cook ’15 led the Ephs with nine points. It was the Ephs’ first appearance in a NESCAC Tournament final, and they now stand at 22-5 overall while Amherst improves to 26-1 – the Jeffs’ only loss came from their first match-up with the Ephs.

Middlebury came out fired up for Saturday’s semifinal, bringing more intensity and execution than the women in the opening minutes and quickly handing Williams a 10-point deficit. On their first six possessions, the Ephs didn’t score a single point, as the Panthers doubled down on Baecher every time she touched the ball. With 10 minutes to play in the period, and down 10 points, the women finally awoke from their shooting slump. First, Grace Rehnquist ’13 nailed a long ball from the top of the key; then, co-captain Danny Rainer ’13 got to the rim and made a lay-up to narrow the gap to five. In the half’s closing minutes, Williams’ defense really stepped up, limiting Middlebury to only one shot per possession and contesting their every look at the basket. The Ephs held the Panthers to just two points over a nine-minute span to fight back into the game. When Macdonald nailed a turnaround jumper in the paint with two minutes to play, the women grabbed their first lead of the contest. Baecher led the half’s strong defensive effort with four blocks. “We got off to a slow start, but then we got it together and held Midd. scoreless for almost 10 minutes, and I felt that was the difference,” Manning said.

In the second period, Harding hit a three right off the bat before Macdonald tallied a deep ball of her own, putting the women up by 11 points. In the ensuing minutes, the Ephs remained steadfast defensively, as they limited the Panthers to 30.6-percent shooting and blocked 13 of their attempts. Baecher continued to rack up a team-high 15 points, while Rainer added 14 and Macdonald, 13. The women did not see their lead dip below double digits once in the game’s final nine minutes, and they left the court with a gritty 59-49 triumph.

Outstanding performance in the paint, on the glass and on the defensive side of the ball fueled the impressive Eph comeback in this game. Williams shot almost 40 percent in the contest and in a testament to their defensive effort, limited the Panthers to just one assist the whole game. “This was a great learning experience for our team,” Manning said. “Things are different in the playoffs.”

The women were awarded an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament on Monday. They will face Scranton in the first round on Friday at Rochester University in New York.

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