If only Middlebury College weren’t 213.5 miles away from my room in Butts A. If I could have made the trip to Vermont for the women’s basketball ’CAC competition, it would have been well worth it. Wesleyan’s team played in their first NESCAC tournament game in four years at Middlebury on Saturday afternoon, and they did not take the occasion lightly. The Cardinals tipped off against the Panthers at three o’clock on Saturday afternoon, and both teams were prepared for an intense playoff game.
The Panthers hosted the Cards during regular season play last month, which resulted in a disappointing loss for Wesleyan. Though the Cards were only down by three at halftime, they were not able to find their momentum in the second half and fell to the Panthers 77-60. They came into this game knowing they would have to maintain their intensity for 40 minutes if they wanted to move on to the semifinals, and just barely did so.
Tara Berger ’19 started off the game with an easy layup, which marked the beginning of an intense first five minutes of play. The teams traded baskets until back-to-back three-pointers from Olivia Gorman ’19 set the Cardinals off on a 19-4 run which would give them a 24-12 lead at the end of the first quarter.
Middlebury woke up in the second quarter, countering every Wesleyan basket with one of their own, challenging Wesleyan’s regularly tight defense by driving to the basket and drawing fouls while also making outside shots. The Panthers chipped away at the Cardinals’ lead and came within six by halftime following a buzzer-beater from Middlebury’s Betsy Knox.
Wes looked to be in trouble at the start of the second half as the Panthers shrunk the lead to four with a quick basket from Maya Davis. Then, two foul shots from Berger spurred a 10-0 run for the Cards, and they jumped back ahead by 14.
Still, Middlebury was nowhere near ready to give up. The Panthers continued to perform on the offensive end, and the third quarter ended with the Cards up only by seven.
The fourth quarter started out slow as both teams struggled to find their offensive rhythm. Senior Maddie Bledsoe hit a three-pointer and back-to-back layups to raise the Cards’ intensity and give them a 12-point lead with six minutes left in the game. Middlebury responded with an 11-0 run to bring them closest to the Cards’ lead since the beginning of the first quarter. The score was 56-55 with just under three minutes to play.
Sophomore Ava Tompkins hit a three-pointer and Gorman made two free throws to give the Cards some breathing room in a six-point lead with 35 seconds to play, but with the season on the line, Middlebury did not back down. The Panthers’ Kira Waldman quickly hit a three-pointer on their next possession, making it a one-possession game with too much time on the clock.
Middlebury then played an intentional foul game, putting Tompkins on the line for one-and-one. Tompkins made the first shot, but missed the second, and Middlebury took the ball up the court, drove to the basket and drew a foul to get two foul shots, both of which they made. Again, Middlebury fouled Tompkins as she brought the ball up the court, and Tompkins made the first of her two free throws.
With two seconds remaining and down by three, Middlebury’s Sarah Kaufman was fouled while launching a three, putting her at the line with the potential for tying the game. Luckily for Wes, she missed her first shot, and the Cards were able to hold on to win 63-62.
Middlebury led Wesleyan in almost every statistical category. The Panthers led in rebounds, turnovers, second-chance points, and free throw percentage, but evidently, that was not enough. The Cards shot an impressive 46.3 percent from the field, and 38.9 percent from beyond the arc, which proved to be just what they needed in order to win.
Bledsoe, going eight for nine in field goals and two for three in three-pointers for 22 points, in addition to 11 rebounds, earned her third NESCAC Player of the Week nod this season. Gorman also scored in double-digits, making six field goals and three three-pointers for a total of 19 points.
With their first conference tournament win since the 2007-08 season, the Cardinals now head to the semifinals to play top-seeded Amherst. The Mammoths bested Wes twice in regular season play. First, Wes fell 64-40 to the defending NCAA champions. Then in January, Wes showed improvement with a 66-51 loss. In their second meeting, a strong second-half performance from the Cardinals showed their potential for beating this undefeated team. Berger recognizes how difficult the game on Saturday will be, but is optimistic about her team’s chances.
“Amherst is number in the country and they have not lost a game in two years so we know playing in their gym with their fans will be a tough challenge,” Berger said. “However, we’ve also been playing really well lately. Many players contribute to our offense and our defense, and our rebounding has been solid all season. For us, it’s really about playing together as a team and with our continued confidence, anything can happen”
Wesleyan leads the NESCAC in rebounding, averaging 46.5 per game, and is ranked second in scoring at 68.5 points per game. If the Cards are able to keep their turnovers to a minimum and continue their domination on the boards, the undefeated Mammoths could have their season unexpectedly shortened.
Rose Griffin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.