Women’s basketball earns first Div. III Final Four berth

For the first time in the team’s history, women’s basketball (26-5, 9-1 in the NESCAC) is going to the Final Four. Last weekend, the Ephs notched two thrilling victories on consecutive days, earning a spot at Championship Weekend in Holland, Mich. The women battled Washington state’s Whitman on Saturday in the NCAA Tournament Sectional Final, triumphing 63-53. They played their third round game a day earlier against New York’s Ithaca. Through regulation and an overtime period, the game was gripping and tightly contested, but stellar offensive performances from co-captain Claire Baecher ’13 and Jennie Harding ’13 gave the Ephs the upper hand, and they emerged victorious, 64-60.

Saturday’s contest began smoothly for the Ephs. Ellen Cook ’15 commenced the scoring when she drove hard to the rim on the game’s first possession. Williams displayed its characteristic physical defense, as Baecher swatted one of the Missionaries first shots; she recorded a whopping nine blocks on the evening. A baseline drive and score from co-captain Danny Rainer ’13 ignited an Eph scoring salvo that saw Cook hit back-to-back threes before Baecher fought her way inside and laid it in. Six minutes in, the women found themselves up 13-2, and Whitman still hadn’t scored a field goal, unable to convert its first fifteen attempts in the half.

The game continued in Williams’ favor throughout the rest of the first period. On the half’s final possession, Rainer, who’d been the offensive workhorse all period with 13 points, drove the lane for a layup that just beat the buzzer and awarded the Ephs a 41-22 advantage.

As the second period got going, Whitman exhibited a renewed fire and intensity. Whitman hit a three, then wrested possession from Harding and scored a layup on the other end. The Missionaries clawed their way back, down only 50-39 with 9:19 to go. Again, it was Rainer to the rescue, as she notched six consecutive points to keep Whitman at arm’s length and deflate their rapidly building momentum. Grace Rehnquist ’13 showed her leadership, stepping up and providing calmness amid an aggressive press.

“We’ve got good ball handlers, but Grace has presence. She stayed very composed and made good decisions. I key a lot of our late game success to her leadership on the floor,” Head Coach Pat Manning said.

As the minutes ticked away, Rainer and Cook hit a couple clutch buckets each to keep the women on top by no fewer than eight points. As the buzzer rang out, Williams students flooded the court to celebrate the 63-53 triumph with the players.

Rainer tallied a career-high 22 points in the contest, while the team shot 43.9 percent to Whitman’s 29.6 percent and totaled a Williams-record 20 blocks in the contest. The victory thrust Williams into the Div. III NCAA Final Four for the first time in the program’s history. The women also set a franchise record in season victories, breaking the previous mark of 25 that Manning earned in 1999. “On any given night, anyone on our team can step up and hit shots in big moments,” Manning said. “We have incredible poise down the stretch.”

The day before, Williams faced No. 25 Ithaca in the Sweet 16 round of the Div. III NCAA tournament. The game was neck-and-neck throughout the half, with the two sides exchanging leads no larger than three points. The Bombers finally built a bigger lead with a three to go up 27-21 with two minutes to play in the first half. A couple possessions later, Rehnquist went coast-to-coast for a fast break layup that shaved the lead. And in the closing seconds, Harding netted a long ball that restored the Eph advantage to 28-27 at the half.

The Ephs retained that late first-half momentum in the second period, stretching their lead to six points with 14:17 left to play. But like the Ephs, the Bombers refused to back down. After much back-and-forth throughout the half, the teams went into overtime with the score tied at 53-53.

The Bombers began the overtime scoring, but Baecher responded with a couple free throws to keep it even. With 1:10 left and a narrow 59-57 advantage, Harding swished a crucial three to extend the Ephs’ lead to five. The Bombers replied with a bucket, but Rainer then sliced through the lane for a score on the Ephs’ next possession, all but putting the game out of reach for the Bombers. The Ephs walked away with a hard-fought and thrilling 64-60 overtime win.

“Ithaca was one of the most physical teams we’ve played all season,” Manning said. “But our players really stepped up. Jennie [Harding] had a great game, hitting a bunch of key shots, especially that late three.”

Baecher led the way for her side, notching 19 points and 10 rebounds for her sixth double-double of the year. She also added four blocks to break the Williams single-season record. At 78 blocks and counting, she broke a record that had been standing for over a decade. The women shot an impressive 43.8 percent from behind the arc.

The women travel to Holland, Mich., to face off against tournament No. 1 Depauw, which dispatched Christopher Newport in its sectional final. Tip-off is set for 7:30 p.m. on Friday. NESCAC rival Amherst will take on University of Wisconsin at Whitewater earlier on Friday at 5:30 p.m. in the other semifinal.

“Getting to the Final Four is incredible, and we don’t feel any pressure,” Manning said. “We’ll lead with our defense, like we have all season, and play as hard as we can. I have tremendous confidence in my team.”