Men’s Basketball Wins First NESCAC Playoff Game Since 2003
On a raucous Saturday afternoon in Silloway Gymnasium, the winningest Wesleyan men’s basketball team in history cruised with ease into its first playoff game in nine years. The victims were the Bowdoin Polar Bears, who the Cardinals defeated just over a week earlier in Maine. After defeating Bowdoin 74-61 on February 10, the Cardinals, seeded third in the NESCAC postseason tournament, electrified the enthusiastic home crowd by demolishing the sixth-seed Polar Bears by a 78-59 score in the teams’ quarterfinal matchup this past Saturday.
Bowdoin was on its heels from the start, but managed to trade baskets with Wesleyan for the first 13 minutes of the first half. The Polar Bears trailed by only two points after Will Hanley, who is second in the conference in points per game and paced the team with 22 points, nailed a jumper with 6:45 to go before halftime.
That’s when the Cardinals’ defense, which has been the key to their NESCAC-record turnaround this year, kicked into gear. A 14-4 run to close the half provided Wesleyan with a 36-24 lead going into the locker room, but the game didn’t even seem that close. Bowdoin shot just 32 percent from the field in the first half, while the Cards shot an outstanding 50 percent. The second half was not much better for the Polar Bears, as Wesleyan roared out of the break by scoring the first five points of the half and taking a 17-point lead. Although the lead was as large as 22 at one point, four three-pointers kept Bowdoin alive, and they got within 13 points once. But the Polar Bears shot an atrocious 44 percent from the free throw line in the game, and only 38 percent from the field, while the Cardinals made 74 percent of their free throws and 48 percent of their shots from the floor. The Silloway crowd, which is usually fairly lethargic at games, was invigorated by the Cardinals’ unprecedented success this season, and the students’ emphatic heckling visibly rattled the Polar Bears at the line.
Wesleyan point guard Shasha Brown ’13, the fastest Cardinal to ever reach 1,000 career points, scored 21 points to lead the team and added three assists and two steals. Junior power forward Mike Callaghan chipped in with 18 points, five rebounds, and three assists. The Cards played solid, fundamental basketball, holding Bowdoin to a low shooting percentage and forcing them into 14 turnovers while only giving the ball back five times.
With the win, the Cards advance to the NESCAC semifinals, where they will face second-seeded Middlebury in Amherst this coming Saturday. The regular season conference champ Lord Jeffs will face fifth-seeded Bates in the other semifinal, with the winners competing for the NESCAC crown on Sunday.
In the Cardinals’ home game against Middlebury on January 14, Wesleyan played the Panthers close, losing just 65-62 even though the visitors were undefeated and ranked first in Division III at the time. Since that game, Middlebury has lost twice, including a one-point decision at Keene State and a two-point overtime defeat at Amherst.
Wesleyan hopes to win its next two games in order to secure an automatic invitation to the NCAA Division III version of March Madness, and if they play like they did against Bowdoin, they’ll have a great chance of doing so.