Men’s Basketball Completes Biggest Turnaround in Conference History
As they traveled to Maine for two weekend games against NESCAC rivals Bowdoin and Colby, the Wesleyan men’s basketball team knew they had a chance to eclipse the school record for wins (18), as well as make the single largest jump in final conference standing from one season to the next in the history of the NESCAC.
They accomplished both goals, manhandling Bowdoin 74-61 on Friday and edging Colby 76-70 on Saturday. The team’s 19-5 record will stand as the new benchmark for future Cardinal teams, and Wes became only the second team in NESCAC men’s basketball history to earn a home playoff game one season after missing the playoffs. They made a larger jump in the standings than the previous team, Middlebury, who improved five spots in the standings from 2006 (ninth place) to 2007 (fourth place). The Cardinals improved from a ninth-place finish last year to third this year.
“It’s obviously a cool way to go out,” said tri-captain Jason Mendell ’12, the team’s only senior. “We’re not a senior-laden team, not a very old team, but we’re very experienced. We’ve had a lot of guys seeing playing time since their freshman years.”
At Bowdoin on Friday, the Cards jumped out to a dominating 28-14 lead after going on a 17-5 run. They allowed the Polar Bears to get back into it before halftime, taking just a 38-30 lead into the break. When Bowdoin broke out to start the second half on a 7-0 run and decrease the deficit to one point, the Cardinals responded like a top team should. A 17-6 run over the next nine minutes sealed the game away for good, with the Cards cruising to the 13-point win behind junior Mike Callaghan’s 25 points and 15 rebounds, both career highs. The win avenged a one-point home loss to Bowdoin a year ago that kept Wes out of the playoffs.
“We just have so much balance,” said Mendell. “We don’t have one main option, which makes us more dangerous. Teams can’t key in on Shasha [Brown ’13, the conference’s fourth-leading scorer at 17.1 points per game] because then [Callaghan] will go for 25. Any given game, everyone has different roles.”
The next day, despite struggling out of the gate and falling behind 13-2, the Cardinals responded admirably yet again against the Colby Mules. After reducing the deficit to 31-30 by halftime, Wesleyan took control of the game in the second half, stretching its lead to as many as 10 points. The Cards proved that they deserved to earn a home playoff game, holding off a late Mule charge that reduced Wes’ lead to 74-70 with 12 seconds left. Brown iced the game, nailing two free throws to provide the final margin and his team-high 16 points. Callaghan’s 15 points and eight boards complemented his performance of a day earlier, and his weekend play earned him his first career NESCAC Player of the Week award.
Wesleyan’s weekend performance earned the team a narrow one-game advantage over fourth-place Tufts and a home playoff game this Saturday. They will face off against the Polar Bears in what will hopefully be a repeat of Friday’s result.
According to Mendell, “Last year was a down year. A lot of people didn’t see this coming, but we knew we would be successful.”
“Our defense has gotten us here,” said Matthew Hogan ’13. “It’s so much better this year. Everyone is working together well, and we’ve been holding teams below their scoring averages.”
Coach Joe Reilly, who won his 200th career game this season, has improved the team’s record from 7-17 in his first year (2008-09) to 19-5 this year. He has really gotten the team to buy in to his defensive principles, and they are reaping the rewards.
“Wesleyan didn’t really have a good track record in basketball,” said Hogan, “but Coach Reilly’s vision attracted me, and rightfully so. We’ve turned around completely since my freshman year.”
Mendell agreed, but made sure to mention that this is not the end. “The ultimate goal is to make the NCAA tournament, and we’re going to use the NESCAC tournament as a springboard to that goal.”
The Cardinals’ attempt to win the NESCAC crown and earn an automatic bid to Division III’s version of March Madness will start with the game against Bowdoin this Saturday, February 18 at 3 p.m.