The men’s basketball team played a couple of tough games at home this past weekend against Trinity (8-1 NESCAC) and Amherst (6-3 NESCAC), falling short both times against their highly-ranked rivals. The Cardinals’ (14-8, 3-5 NESCAC) playoff chances hang in the balance now, as they are tied with Middlebury for the eighth and final spot in the NESCAC tournament.
Friday night’s game against Trinity featured perhaps the largest crowd for a home game this year, with attendance listed at 750. The high intensity atmosphere led to a back-and-forth battle between the in-state rivals, evidenced by eight lead changes in the second half alone. Although the Cardinals led with just under six minutes remaining, Trinity closed the gap and held on for a 65-61 victory.
“The crowd was great, and that game was amazing because of it,” said guard BJ Davis ’16. “Obviously we would’ve hoped for a different result, but we played hard. If some shots fall or if there are some different bounces, it might’ve gone our way. I don’t think we could’ve played any harder, and we fought to the end.”
The Cardinals showed off their typically diverse scoring attack, as Davis, Harry Rafferty ’17, Jack Mackey ’16, and Joseph Kuo ’17 all scored in double digits. Kuo continued his success in the paint, adding 11 rebounds for his fifth double-double of the year. Wesleyan, however, struggled on the boards as a whole, getting out-rebounded by the Bantams 46-35.
Davis, who garnered NESCAC Co-Player of the Week honors in January for a couple of impressive scoring performances against Baruch and Conn. College, hit a big three with 59 seconds left in the game to put the Cardinals back within two of Trinity. Davis was given another chance for a clutch shot with 17 seconds remaining, but couldn’t put in a second one from beyond the arc as the Bantams clung to a slim three-point lead down the stretch. After the Bantams missed a couple of free throws, Mackey put up Wesleyan’s final chance to tie from three but couldn’t rattle it home.
“That play where I had the shot was designed for me and I got a good look, good screen from Harry [Rafferty], but it just didn’t drop for me,” Davis said. “And Jack’s been making shots like that all year, so he got a good look but it didn’t fall.”
Despite the loss, the Cardinals played Trinity almost as close as any of their opponents all year. The game was never separated by more than five during the second half, while Wesleyan’s 33.9% shooting from the field came in well below their average this year of 42.6%.
“Games like that definitely make us scary for the tournament,” Davis said. “If we make that tournament, I don’t think anybody wants to play us again. We’ve grown so much since last year at this time and we’ve come together. Last year, we got off to a good start and things got real bumpy in the middle of the season, but this year we’re sticking together well. Even with these couple of losses, I think we’re trusting each other more and we’re trusting our coach more, so we’re definitely dangerous.”
Little Three rival Amherst came into town on Saturday and jumped out to a quick lead, up 11 with five minutes to go in the first half. However, Wes put together a strong run to cut the deficit to two by halftime, and actually tied the game early in the second half.
The Lord Jeffs began to shoot well and attack the basket with some more success in the second half, making their way to the free throw line 21 times just in that period.
“I think we started playing some better defense during that run at the end of the first half,” Davis said. “Obviously [Amherst’s] Connor Green had a great game [with 26 points], but in that second half I think they just got in a rhythm hitting threes. We were coming down the court and just not getting the looks we needed, and couldn’t get many shots to fall. So when they’re hitting threes and we’re getting empty possessions, it’s hard to make a run.”
Davis led the Cards with a game-high 16 points on a solid 3 of 5 shooting performance from beyond the arc, while Kuo chipped in with 12 points of his own. The Cardinals’ shooting woes continued from the Trinity game, as Wesleyan shot just 30% from the field in the second half.
“We just need to get some wins,” Davis said. “Again, I think we fought well as always. Last time we played them, they killed us on the boards, but this time the rebounds were pretty tight. I think for the most part we played good defense, but they hit some tough shots. Even though we lost by almost 20, I don’t think that was a 20-point blowout by any means.”
Wesleyan will square off against Hamilton and Williams this coming weekend in what looks to be the Cards’ most important set of games this season. With the logjam in the middle of the NESCAC standings right now, there is no guarantee that Wesleyan makes the playoffs even with two wins. However, Wesleyan is tied for the final playoff spot right now with Middlebury, who has a couple of tough matchups against Trinity and Amherst this weekend.
“We’ve been saying for a while now, we’ve just got to get in,” Davis said. “We need it. Last year hurt, thinking we were in and then having that crazy tiebreaker out, so we don’t want to leave it to chance. We need to get these two wins this weekend because it’s so important to play in the postseason with this team. I think our team is ready and I really don’t think any team in the NESCAC wants to play us, no matter what seed we get. Even if we get the eighth seed and have to play at Trinity, I don’t think Trinity wants to play us.”