After beating Bates, who was previously undefeated at home, in a NESCAC quarterfinal game last week, the men’s basketball team is slated to take on Trinity on Saturday in the tournament semifinal. The Cardinals (17-8, 5-5 NESCAC) enter the game as the NESCAC’s sixth seed, ranked 11th in New England, while top-seeded Trinity (9-1 NESCAC) comes in ranked second in the region.
Wesleyan is hitting its stride at the right time, winning a pair of blowout games to finish the season and push its way into the tournament before reaching the semifinals. The Cards’ first round win last week marked the first playoff victory for Wes since 2012, when they fell to a nationally ranked Middlebury team in the semifinals.
“We’re playing really confidently right now, and we’re playing loose,” said Head Coach Joe Reilly. “Although you want to be a higher seed going into a tournament, you can certainly sell the benefit of not knowing whether you’ll even be in the tournament 48 hours before the season ends. So we have a real appreciation for just having the opportunity to play, and I think there’s more pressure on some other teams to hold home court advantage or to maintain their seed throughout the tournament, but I think we’re loose. We know we’re real good, and I think we have a good record, but we’re just inches or one or two bounces from being even better record-wise, so I think we understand that we really belong in the top four of the league.”
Part of what has made the Cardinals so successful lately is their ability to shoot well from the perimeter and go to six different scoring threats. Joe Edmonds ’16, BJ Davis ’16, and Harry Rafferty ’17 are all ranked in the NESCAC top 10 in three-point shooting percentage, while Jack Mackey ’16 is just a few spots removed.
“We think they might [focus on our perimeter play],” Reilly said. “But if you look at the Bates game, I mean Joe Edmonds had a terrific game, but overall it wasn’t like we shot the ball well. I thought we really won that game on defense, but the reality of the NESCAC tournament is it’s going to be a team that shoots the ball well from the perimeter. We play a lot of inside-out basketball though, and that plays to our advantage because Joseph [Kuo ’17] is our leading scorer. So you look at everything, and even though we shoot the ball well from the perimeter, our leading scorer is our center. So I guess it just plays into our hands if they play out on us, and it’ll just let our guys get closer to the basket inside.”
Trinity has built up a strong defensive reputation, allowing the fewest points per game in the NESCAC this season. Despite their top record, the Bantams have had many close calls this season, including one at Wesleyan a few weeks ago. The Cards led Trinity with about five minutes left and had a couple of chances to tie the game in its closing moments, but the Bantams escaped with a 65-61 victory. In its first round victory last Saturday, Trinity was down at halftime and beat eighth-seeded Colby by just three.
“I think they’re the best defensive team in the conference,” Reilly said. “If you’re not disciplined with your execution, then it’s going to be really hard for you to get good shots. They’re a great rebounding team, and their rebounding margin is second best in the conference. But if you can control them on the glass, then you have a great chance to win. But if they’re getting second or third shots, they’re tough to beat. There were plays in our first game where they were just tougher than us.”
While the Cardinals have won a few games lately with their long-range shooting, the inside play from Kuo and Rashid Epps ’16 has also proved to be integral to the team’s success. Wesleyan is also versatile enough to have a lineup full of big men, as Chris Tugman ’15 and Tim Gallivan ’15 came off the bench with some important minutes and key boards in the Cards’ victory over Bates. Jordan Sears ’18 also made an impact off the bench in Wesleyan’s quarterfinal, logging some time as a strong defensive presence.
After just missing the playoffs by a tiebreaker last year, Wesleyan’s young lineup has gained valuable game and playoff experience this season. The Cardinals’ top-six scorers are all juniors or sophomores.
“I’ve seen a lot of maturity with the group,” Reilly said. “Last year we were young and inexperienced, and this year, we’re not as young, but on paper we’re still playing some underclassmen. You can watch guys finish games and speculate how it feels to be on the line when the game is tied or when you need that big stop on defense, but you have to live it. It’s a process. You can’t rush experience, but I’ve seen a lot of growth.”
As the top seed, Trinity will host the NESCAC semifinals and championship game no matter the outcome of Saturday’s matchup. The Cards have lived for the big matchup so far this year, winning or competing closely against just about every top NESCAC opponent.
“We’ll just need to find a way to get those key stops and those key scores at the right times,” Rafferty said. “A lot of that is just coming with energy and togetherness in sharing the ball. We really need to seize the moment in that big play, where we can look at each other and know it’s where we need to get it done together. We’re very excited because it’ll be a wild game. They’re going to be so excited to host this whole event, so with the four teams there and crowds there, it’ll be an unbelievable atmosphere. I hope we can get a lot of people from Wesleyan to come up, too. If we can get a bunch of fans up there, that’d be huge because we know they’re going to pack that place with their fans. If we can bring some of our own home court advantage there, that would be amazing.”