As the NESCAC men’s basketball regular season comes down to its final four games, the Cardinals (14-6, 3-3 NESCAC) control their own destiny in the coming weeks. Wesleyan split a pair of key matchups this past weekend against Bates (4-2 NESCAC) and Tufts (4-2 NESCAC), putting itself in a three-way tie for sixth place and a playoff spot.
The Cards traveled to Bates for a game against the second-seeded Bobcats on Jan. 30, and although Wesleyan led by one with just over six minutes remaining, the Bobcats mounted a 74-66 comeback win. Bates was led by an impressive performance from forward Graham Safford, who hit five threes on his way to 31 points.
“Graham Safford is arguably the best player in the league,” said Wesleyan Head Coach Joe Reilly. “I thought we had a few defensive lapses but overall, he just really stepped up. I thought we just had to tip our hats to a great day from him. It was a hostile environment up there, and we just came up a few plays short.”
Despite the loss, Wesleyan shot the ball well from deep, highlighted by a perfect 4 of 4 performance from Harry Rafferty ’17. Jack Mackey ’16 chipped in with 15 points, all of which came from beyond the arc, while Joe Edmonds ’16 led the Cardinals with a team-high 16 points. BJ Davis ’16 continued his NESCAC Player of the Week-worthy performance, dishing out 11 assists in the defeat.
After some lower scoring totals over winter break and earlier in the season, 6’5” Edmonds is seeing more success, scoring with more consistency this past weekend. Edmonds, who also dropped a team-high 18 in the Cardinal win against Tufts on Saturday, is just one of six different players who has led the Cards in scoring in a game in their diverse offense this year.
“I think [Edmonds] is attacking the rim a lot better, but we really haven’t changed up what we’re doing,” Reilly said. “Throughout our season we really just do what we do, just making a few tweaks to our game plan that we put in on November 1. For the most part, we knew the makeup of the team coming in because there are so many returners. Our nucleus is intact though, so we’re just getting better at what we’re supposed to be doing.”
Following the loss to Bates, Wesleyan faced a quick turnaround, traveling down to play against Tufts less than 24 hours later. The Cards were in danger of a winless weekend at halftime as they trailed 36-30, but an 11-0 run to begin the second half propelled Wesleyan to a key 80-71 win against another top NESCAC opponent.
The second half saw the Cards firing on all cylinders, going 20 for 24 on free throws and outscoring the Jumbos 50-35. Joseph Kuo ’17 had a strong game in the paint, scoring 17 and grabbing 13 rebounds for his fourth double-double of the season. While Edmonds was unable to hit any of his four shots from deep, he made up for it by getting to the line and going 12 of 15 from the charity stripe.
“What I was really excited about was the character we showed as a team that bounced back less than 24 hours later and beat a team in Tufts,” Reilly said. “Going into that game, they were battling for the top seed in the tournament with only one loss. The NESCAC is great in that way, where in every win, you’re a couple plays away from losing and vice versa. There’s a lot of parity in the league this year.”
That parity brings crucial importance to every game. If the season ended today, Tufts would have a home playoff game, and Colby (3-4), just one game behind the Jumbos, would miss the playoffs as it sits in ninth place.
After winning NESCAC Co-Player of the Week while averaging an impressive 19 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists last week, Davis will look to continue his success in the versatile Wesleyan offense in the coming weeks.
“If you look at our team, with the whole body of work, we’re just so balanced and I think every day someone else has the opportunity to step up,” Reilly said. “Other teams can’t key in on everybody, so it was really his turn to have a great weekend. He’s a very high level player and one of the better guards in the league, and everything that he does, although he’s had a lot of assists, requires some other guys to set him up. I think it’s really been a team effort and it happened to be his week, but I think it’s been an awesome year for him. He works hard and he’s grown a lot as a player during the first half of the year and throughout his time with us, so that’s always gratifying to see as a coach.”
The Cardinals’ upcoming home stretch looks to be a wild one, as they’ll face top-seeded Trinity and Little Three rival Amherst this coming weekend. After a more relaxed winter break with non-conference games and no classwork, Wesleyan has made a smooth adjustment to its most hectic time of the year.
“Our season is so segmented because at the beginning of our season we’re playing in the weeks leading up to final exams, so it’s a real crunch academically,” Reilly said. “I think winter break presents its own challenges. You have a lot of time on your hands, and I like it better when we get back into the rhythm of the academics and that routine. Now I think we’re back to our comfort zone, where our guys can focus on their work and their basketball, which I think is a healthy co-existence.”