After a year of playoff absence, the men’s basketball team will move on to the NESCAC semifinals following its 66-59 win over Bates in the tournament’s opening round on Saturday.
The Cardinals came out with one of their strongest defensive performances of the year in a gritty victory, keeping the Bobcats off the boards and forcing them to shoot a dismal 4 for 26 from beyond the arc. Bates came into the game as one of the best inside-play teams in the conference, but the Cardinals out-rebounded the Bobcats 44-41 and neutralized Bates’ attack.
“It was a crazy game,” said point guard Harry Rafferty ’17. “That gym is so small and gets so loud, and they have such a good atmosphere up there so it was a ton of fun. Their coach played for [Wesleyan Head Coach Joseph Reilly] when Coach Reilly was at Bates, so they run a ton of the same stuff as us, and they know a lot of the stuff we do. So that made it a real dogfight because we know each other, and if you look at the box scores it just wasn’t a pretty numbers game with a lot of missed shots. Thankfully, some guys like Joe [Edmonds ’16] had great games, otherwise I don’t know if we would’ve pulled that one out.”
Edmonds led the Cardinals on Saturday with 22 points, draining five of six three-pointers and adding another five shots from the free throw line. Jack Mackey ’16 also contributed 18 points while Rashid Epps ’16 led a strong Wesleyan rebounding effort off the bench with eight boards.
The 22-point performance from Edmonds marks his third straight week in double-digit scoring, as the 6’5” swingman found his role recently as a go-to scoring threat for the Cardinals. Wesleyan’s attack has been well rounded this year, to say the least, with four players—Edmonds not being one—averaging double-digit scoring.
“I think I’ve just been more aggressive,” Edmonds said. “That started in the Bates game a couple weeks ago, but nothing in particular has stood out to me. It’s been more of a mindset in being aggressive on offense. We have a lot of really balanced scoring, so adding one more piece just makes us that much harder to guard.”
After trading buckets for the first few minutes on Saturday, Wesleyan went on a strong run in the first half to jump out to a 33-20 lead with a little over three minutes to play in the period. The Bobcats responded quickly, though, and they started the second halfstrongly, putting together an 18-2 run to go ahead 38-35 for their largest lead of the day with 15 minutes left in the game.
“Basketball is a game of runs; it just is,” Rafferty said. “We made a great run to go up 13 in that half, but we knew they were going to make another run later. They’re too good of a team not to. Did we know we’d be down so quickly after that? Probably not, but that’s just the way the game is played. That really shows a lot about the growth of our team, that we were able to sustain that run from them and still come back to win the game. Young teams don’t do that, and we hadn’t done that in the past. We’ve lost a lot of close games this year, so Saturday kind of proved that we’re growing up and learning how to win close games.”
The Wesleyan defense was able to come up big down the stretch, highlighted by strong rebounding off the bench from Chris Tugman ’15 and Tim Gallivan ’15, who finished with four and three boards respectively. Jordan Sears ’18 also logged some key minutes off the bench, matching up against Graham Safford, Bates’ point guard and offensive centerpiece.
“Jordan Sears was unbelievable in the minutes he gave us, just wearing out Graham,” Rafferty said. “He was defending him full court, just being a pest on the ball. I thought one of the other biggest difference makers was Chris Tugman. It was just such a dogfight on the boards, such a physical game, and when he came in as a big body with some huge rebounds, it was perfect energy off the bench. He completely changed the flow of the game.”
After exchanging baskets for most of the second half and with the game tied at 49, Mackey hit a jumper from beyond the arc to put Wes ahead for good with just over four minutes remaining. Though Bates kept the game close, the Cardinals hit their free throws down the stretch and handed the Bobcats their first home loss of the season.
“I think the difference in those close games is just the gut of the game in those last eight minutes or so,” Rafferty said. “It just comes down to who’s going to get the big stops and who’s going to execute offensively. With a more mature team like we’re becoming because of just growing up together, we’re learning how to get that key stop when we need it, or a great possession on offense to lead to a great shot. In the past we’ve struggled in those key moments, but now we’re getting used to these close games and we’re understanding what it takes to win those bigger possessions.”
Wesleyan is slated to play top-seeded Trinity on Saturday in the semifinals at Trinity. The Bantams came to Middletown earlier this year and left with a slim 65-61 victory over Wesleyan in a game that came down to the final seconds.
“Every game they play is pretty close, for the most part, because they’re such a defensive-oriented team,” Edmonds said. “Much like Bates, they’re a big offensive rebounding team so we’ll need to be physical and come with some energy. They really limit teams offensively and that’s kind of their thing, so if we can rebound and just hit open shots, we’ll be successful.”