The Cards won the Little Three title away at Amherst this past Tuesday, defeating their historic rival in a 73-72 overtime thriller. Jordan Bonner ’19 drained a three-point buzzer beater to send the game into overtime and then sank crucial foul shots to clinch the win. The victory came as relief after a 60-62 loss away at Williams this past Friday.
These two games marked the Cards’ second time facing each of their Little Three rivals this season. The team had previously defeated Williams 72-62 on Dec. 3 and had beaten Amherst 73-59 on Jan. 13.
Wesleyan’s chance to gain the prestigious recognition seemed strong until this past Friday, when Williams pulled away late in the second half of the game to eke out a two-point victory. Since this loss evened Wesleyan’s Little Three record with Amherst, it meant that Tuesday’s away game against the Purple and White would decide the winner of the Little Three.
The first half of the title game stayed tight. Amherst managed a seven-point lead at the 7:53 mark, but Wes quickly worked to close the gap with three-point plays from Nathan Krill ’18 and Kevin O’Brien ’19. The half finished with Wesleyan leading by 30-29.
Wes came out with guns blazing in the second, posting a quick 13 unanswered points. The team’s defense proved equally impressive, as it did not allow a single Amherst point for the first eight minutes of the half. Amherst, snatching the momentum, then retaliated with 13 unanswered points of its own, tying the game at 53 with 4:50 remaining. In the last minute of play, the Purple and White went on a five-point run to take the lead, 65-62. With five seconds left to decide the winner, Bonner sank a cold-blooded, buzzer-beating three to send the game into overtime.
Overtime stayed close. With 1:30 on the clock, Amherst made a layup to take the lead at 72-71. Forty-five seconds later, Bonner took to the foul line, making both his shots to put Wes up one. The Cards’ defense managed to hold this lead until the sound of the buzzer.
Bonner saw his spectacular play at the end as a symptom of his teammates’ trust and teamwork.
“It was definitely a great win for the team,” said Bonner. “After bouncing back from a tough loss to Williams, this game was a mental test to see how we would respond. I am extremely proud of my brothers for believing in me but most importantly for believing in ourselves and trusting each other to make the right plays in big moments. Now, our focus is on finishing our season and remaining close as a team every step of the way. All glory to the most high.’’
Joseph Kuo ’17, another key player in the game, also commented on how important this win meant going into the postseason.
“I think such a tough win gives us confidence going into our last regular season and it definitely made us closer as a team,” said Kuo. “Amherst had a 32-game win streak at home and won 100 out of the last 105 there so that made it that much more special.”
Kevin McDonald ’20 affirmed the satisfaction of defeating Amherst on its own turf.
“Just another huge road win where I think everyone on our team contributed,” said McDonald. “Snapping Amherst’s winning streak at home and winning the Little Three outright on the road highlights our mental toughness as a team. When Amherst took a lead after we were up the whole second half, we didn’t panic and guys stepped up. Obviously, Jordan Bonner’s shot was crazy but our defense down the stretch and in overtime sealed the game for us. We rely on our defense and our toughness and that came through again tonight.”
Team captain Harry Rafferty ’17 was excited to break Amherst’s home-win streak, but focused more on what is to come.
“Obviously the Little Three Championship was a team goal for us at the beginning of the year and to do it in Amherst’s gym, a place where they are undefeated this year and have won 32 consecutive games over the last three years, was special for us,” said Rafferty. “However, there is still a ton to improve on and now we are solely focused on getting two home wins this weekend versus Bowdoin and Colby. It would be great to get a big home crowd for both of those.”
Head coach Joe Reilly discussed how the win helped redeem the loss to Williams this past Friday.
“After a tough two-point loss at Williams, this was a huge response by our team,” said Reilly. “It was our 10th road game since Dec. 7 – our 10th road game in the last 14 days. This schedule has forced our guys to improve their mental toughness, face good teams in hostile environments, and learn to deal with setbacks. I like where we are as a team, preparing for the postseason. Our NESCAC playoff seeding is in our hands with two home games this weekend. It will be good to play in front of our home crowd.”
Reilly also mentioned how proud the team was to finally take the title back to Wes.
“The Little Three rivalry means a lot to our program and we are proud to get the out-right title back to Middletown,” he said.
The Cards earned a split of the Little Three title with Amherst last year; this is Wesleyan’s first time winning the title outright since the 1990-91 season.
Wes will host two NESCAC tilts this upcoming weekend to end its regular season. The team will face Bowdoin today (Feb. 10) at 7 p.m. and then Colby at 3 p.m. on Saturday.