In one historic weekend, the men’s basketball team knocked off both top-seeded Trinity and three-time defending champion Amherst, bringing home the NESCAC championship title to Middletown for the first time in Wesleyan history.
The sixth-seeded Cardinals came into championship weekend winless against both the Bantams and the Lord Jeffs this year, but they used their diverse offensive attack and an increasingly strong defensive presence to knock off their in-state and Little Three rivals, respectively. They are the lowest seed to ever win the NESCAC tournament.
Wesleyan won five straight road games to close out the regular season and entered the game 4-46 in the last 25 years against Amherst. The team lost by 40 points combined in two match-ups with the Lord Jeffs this year, but after defeating Trinity, who was 9-1 in league play this year, the men felt they could come away with the championship.
“I think the biggest thing is that we really believed we could win going into the weekend,” said Head Coach Joe Reilly. “There’s a big difference between just being happy to be there and then being there to win, and this team, even going into the last week of our regular season, really believed we could win.”
In Sunday’s championship game, Wesleyan and Amherst were not separated by more than five points at any point during the final 10 minutes. After Amherst tied the game at 63 with 3:35 left, neither team scored in the rest of regulation. BJ Davis ’16, who already hit a game winner earlier this year against Baruch College, just barely missed a potential go-ahead jumper off of an isolation play near the top of the key in the final seconds.
“That was the exact play we wanted,” said point guard Harry Rafferty ’17. “In a tie game, we work on that situation all the time in practice, and we truthfully believe BJ Davis is the toughest one-on-one player in the league. He got a great shot and created space, but just missed it. So even though it didn’t go in, we were pleased with that possession and happy we got the shot we wanted.”
After almost three more minutes of scoreless play in overtime, Jack Mackey ’16 hit the shot of the year for the Cards. After a hard dribble in from the left side of the three-point arc, Mackey sunk a step-back trey over an Amherst defender to give Wes the lead.
“What more can you say about Jack Mackey?” Rafferty said. “He’s just made big shot after big shot. Every game it’s someone who steps up, and this game it happened to be him. So I really do think this game was won because we defended the three so well, and because we shot from three pretty well because of Jack Mackey.”
The three was Mackey’s sixth of the day, as the captain continued to come up big in the final minutes of overtime with assists on a couple of Joseph Kuo ’17 dunks to support the Cardinals’ lead.
Mackey earned Player of the Week for his effort on the weekend, and was six for thirteen from downtown in the contest. The effort also earned him the single season record for three-pointers in a season, 75 and counting, having passed Chris Bray ’03. Between the two games, Mackey played 71 minutes and had just one turnover.
“Jack Mackey was huge with his six threes, and you just never know who’s going to step up,” Reilly said. “Like PJ Reed [’17] in the Trinity game, coming in and scoring seven points with a couple of threes off the bench was absolutely huge for us. And Rashid Epps [’16] in the championship, coming in and getting a double-double and dominating the paint, was just awesome. That’s what makes us so hard to prepare for, is that we have so many different guys who have the ability to step up.”
Wesleyan led by double digits early in the second half after they closed out the first on a 19-2 run, but Amherst shot a strong 55 percent from the field in the second half to mount a comeback. After surrendering leads late in games a couple times earlier this season, the Cards’ experience in these final close moments helped them finish off Amherst this weekend.
“I called a timeout with five minutes left in that game after giving up a lead, and I told the team to think back to practice on Nov. 1,” Reilly said. “If someone told them they would be tied in the NESCAC championship with five minutes to go then, they would be ecstatic. So that was really about getting the focus on the game at hand and being ready to go, not that our lead had dwindled a little bit.”
The Cardinals began their weekend with a semi-final game against tournament host Trinity and, fueled by an early 15-4 run to start the game, never trailed on their way to a 55-52 victory. Trinity, who allowed the least points per game in the NESCAC this season, was unable to get anything going against a stifling Wesleyan defense, going just 6 of 24 from the field in the first half.
While the Bantams cut the lead to within two during the final minutes of play, Wes sustained the run and came away with the upset.
“The biggest thing about that Trinity game is we never gave up the lead,” Reilly said. “We know teams are going to make runs at us, but we really try to focus on the process. During that run we were getting good shots, but they just weren’t dropping. So we didn’t panic and kept our composure to make big plays when we needed to.”
A large group of Wesleyan students and supporters made the short trip up to Hartford to support the Cardinals, and ended up creating a home-court-like atmosphere. While small compared to the rest of the crowd, the Wesleyan fans created such a ruckus that the game’s Webcast announcer had to remind viewers multiple times that the game was indeed a home contest for Trinity.
“The Trinity game was unbelievable,” said point guard Harry Rafferty ’17. “I’ll put it this way: if we don’t have that type of atmosphere and that type of support from our community, I truthfully don’t think we win that game. The fans and this community really carried us when that game was coming down to the wire. Wesleyan has a reputation as being a school without much school spirit, but I thought the spirit this weekend was unbelievable. I know for a fact that without it, we don’t win.”
The Cardinals’ 19 wins to this point mark the second-most in school history, just shy of their 20-win season in 2011-2012. Now, in the national tournament, Wesleyan has a special chance to make history and capture the school’s first ever tournament victory. The prospects are good, as a NESCAC team has been involved in the national championship game four of the last seven years.
“I think [this weekend] was the start of something bigger,” Rafferty said. “With a coach like Joe Reilly and the players that we have, and just the environment that we’ve created, I don’t see why it should stop anytime soon. I think it’ll continue to keep growing, and we’re going to keep getting better and more mature, so we can definitely grow off of this victory.”
Wesleyan will face off against Skidmore College in the opening round this Friday, March 6, at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Skidmore won the Liberty League this year, and will ride an eight-game win streak into its third-ever D3 tournament bid. The winner of that game will play the winner of the matchup between Johns Hopkins, which earned the Centennial Conference automatic bid after losing to Dickinson in the conference finals, and Keene St., which won the Little East Conference championship.
Three other NESCAC teams made the national tournament, including Bates, Amherst, and Trinity, which will host games in the opening and second rounds. Wesleyan became the first team in history to defeat three eventual NCAA qualifiers in the NESCAC tournament.