Frenetic Men’s Basketball Comeback Falls Just Short
The Wesleyan men’s basketball team entered this past weekend on the precipice of either tournament play or an early off-season, toeing the line between redemption and disappointment. The Cardinal men sat dead last in the NESCAC standings, yet two wins against Colby and Bowdoin would propel the underachieving team to the goal they had talked about all year: the NESCAC Tournament. There were 80 minutes until eternity, and the Wesleyan Cardinals responded admirably.
Colby came to Middletown last Friday with the same must-win mentality, but just could not keep up with the host Cardinals. Though Colby jumped out to an early five-point lead, a three-pointer by co-captain Jason Mendell ’12 with 13:41 left in the first half sparked a dominant stretch for the hosts. Just under nine minutes later, Mendell dished to Mike Callaghan ’13 for a three to cap off a 22-5 scoring run that turned a 9-4 deficit into a comfortable 26-14 lead. While the Mules would knot the score at 46 with 11:40 remaining in the second half, the superb play of Shasha Brown ’13 (21 points on 9-11 shooting) to complement the 14 points and 12 rebounds from Callaghan prevented Colby from ever retaking the lead. Wesleyan would leave Silloway Gymnasium with a 70-65 win and hope for a playoff berth still intact.
The Cardinals took the court against the Bowdoin Polar Bears the very next day. Everyone knew what was on the line: the winner would clinch the eighth and final seed in the NESCAC Tournament, while the loser would finish ninth in the conference and out of playoff play. A steal by Brown led to a Callaghan layup that gave Wesleyan a 21-15 lead with 11:18 left in the half, but Bowdoin fought back to tie the game at 24 with 6:50 remaining. The Polar Bears caught fire towards the end of the half, outscoring the Cardinals 11-4 over the final four minutes to give Bowdoin a 40-33 edge heading into the intermission.
As Wesleyan came out looking to mount a comeback in the final 20 minutes, Bowdoin held strong and maintained their momentum coming out of halftime, extending their lead to 64-50 with just 5:10 remaining in the game. With their backs to the wall and the season on the line, Wesleyan struck back. Behind efficient team shooting and a barrage of free throws, a 14-point blowout became a vulnerable 67-62 lead for Bowdoin with two minutes remaining. A layup by Matt Hogan ’13 cut the lead to 71-68 with 31 seconds remaining, but Bowdoin would hit one of two free throws following a foul by Derrick Beresford ’13 that prevented an easy layup. Brown sent the Silloway crowd into a frenzy with a clutch three to pull Wesleyan within one point with 19 seconds left. The Cardinals were able to force a bad pass near mid-court that was nearly stolen by Brown until a Bowdoin player bumped him from behind. Bowdoin recovered the ball and no foul was called on the play, forcing Hogan to foul a Bowdoin shooter with seven seconds left. Polar Bear Will Hanley missed both free throws and Matt Callori ’13 pulled in the rebound, launching the last gasp attempt by Wesleyan. Brown found Beresford open in the right corner for three as the buzzer sounded, but the shot went off the far rim. Bowdoin escaped Silloway with a 72-71 win, and the Cardinals were left to ponder a season untimely ended.
“It was a very challenging season,” recounted Coach Joe Reilly, following his third season at Wesleyan. “As a head coach in the NESCAC for the past 15 years, I cannot recall another team who had to endure losing four players to injuries. We are all disappointed we didn’t win more games and get to the NESCAC tournament but we put in a great effort and competed in every game.”
The injury bug did hit Wesleyan particularly hard this season. Co-captain Greg St. Jean ’13 missed the entire season with a broken wrist, while Dave Maltz ’11, Dave Fogel ’13, and Glen Thomas ’14 also missed time due to injury. As Maltz, Otis Poisson ’11, and Neal Creeden ’11 leave the Cardinal men, one cannot help but wonder how a healthier Wesleyan squad would have fared. On the other hand, with all of this season’s usual starters returning, men’s basketball is primed to reach the NESCAC Tournament and make some noise in the 2011-2012 season.
“I am proud of this team and how they stuck together until the final buzzer,” Reilly said. “It is certainly a reflection of the three great seniors in the program.”