WILLIAMSTOWN, MA—A lengthy losing streak. Half a decade of futility. A pair of setbacks each season since 2009.
No matter how you looked at it, the Williams women's basketball team's 11-game winless drought against archrival Amherst College was a difficult pill to swallow for the Williams faithful.
Claire Baecher led a phenomenal Senior Day performance from the No. 25 Ephs (19-4, 8-1 NESCAC), who dealt No. 3 Amherst (22-1, 8-1 NESCAC) its first loss of the season by a resounding 71-51 margin to create a three-way logjam with Tufts atop the NESCAC standings and give the Ephs a share of this year's Little Three crown. Baecher notched a season high with 30 points to go along with eight rebounds and a pair of blocks, impressive numbers that nevertheless scarcely scratch the surface of her heroic effort.
In fact, 67 of the Ephs' points—a staggering 94%—came from four of its six seniors, with Danny Rainer (who also posted a season high in scoring), Jennie Harding and Grace Rehnquist contributing 18, 12 and seven points respectively, all with their families in attendance.
"This was a really special game for us," said Baecher afterward. "We're such a close group, and we really wanted to do it for each other. It feels amazing."
After managing just 48 points in 40 minutes in January's dispiriting lost in Amherst, an inspired Ephs squad needed just half of that amount of time to score 39 on Sunday afternoon. Kellie Macdonald got the Ephs rolling with a layup banked off the glass on the Ephs' first trip up the court; soon after that, however, Baecher began to assert herself as the game's dominant force, as she scored six of the Ephs' next eight, with the final pair coming on a gritty drive down the lane that began at the top of the arc and was unsuccessfully contested by three Jeffs. That drive, compounded by a struggling Jeffs offense that didn't score until Marcia Voigt tallied a coast-to-coast layup over three minutes in and repeatedly ran down the shot clock while looking for an opening, prompted Amherst coach GP Gromacki to burn his first timeout with 13:19 to go in the period.
The stoppage had no readily discernible effect, as the Ephs quickly added to their lead with some tic-tac-toe passing around the perimeter that culminated in a majestic three-pointer from Harding. Harding's basket appeared to serve as something of a wake-up call for the Jeffs, who managed to trim the deficit to five at 14-9 when Cheyenne Pritchard sliced through a seam up the middle before dishing to Megan Robertson, who easily made her second field goal with 11:03 remaining.
Yet just as the Jeffs looked primed to pull themselves level for the first time since the game's opening minute, the Ephs responded in style with a stunning 22-3 run that spanned nearly ten minutes and proved to be the contest's decisive stretch. As she had moments earlier, Harding provided the spark, this time splitting a pair of defenders at the arc and finishing with a one-handed toss that skimmed high off the glass and in.
The game's defining sequence came 37 seconds later, when Baecher hit her only three of the half, then supplied a thunderous block on a Voigt attempt from downtown. Harding corralled the rebound and fed Rehnquist, who drained a three of her own with 8:41 to go that brought her side's bench to its feet and earned a deafening roar from the crowd.
While a defensive breakdown by the Ephs left Voigt, who led the Jeffs with 19 points on the evening, free to fire a three to narrow the gap to ten, the Ephs rattled off 14 unanswered points to build a 36-12 advantage with just under two to play in the period. The run was spurred by rotating contributions from Harding, who knocked down another long three to widen the lead to 15, Jen Borderud, who grabbed a pair of key offensive rebounds to keep possessions alive for the Ephs, and Baecher, who consistently worked her way free in the paint and posted 15 points by the end of the half, which closed when Robertson narrowly missed a baseline three at the buzzer that would have cut the deficit to 17. Instead, the Ephs went into the locker room ahead 39-19, though Manning was loathe to let her team let down one iota.
"When you're playing Amherst, no lead is enough," said Manning. "We went into the locker room playing as if we were down 10. It's hard sometimes to sustain that for 40 minutes when you get such a great start, and we knew they would come back and fight."
Indeed, the second half proved to be a much more even affair, as the two squads ultimately matched point totals in the period. This time, it was Rainer who spurred the offense on in the early going, as she used a pair of running layups sandwiched around a well-shot jumper from about three feet inside the foul line to score the Ephs' first six points of the period.
"The first five minutes of the second half were really important," said Manning. "Danny started us off, and then we were able to just build from there."
In fact, the Eph advantage grew to as much as 26 when Baecher earned a layup "and-one" off a well-timed feed from Borderud to make the score 49-23 with 15:28 to play. From there, the half settled into an uneasy rhythm of fouls (both teams committed 10 apiece in the period), turnovers and missed shots punctuated by occasional bursts of scoring from both teams.
That was just fine for the Ephs, who never let the Jeffs pull closer than 18 points in the half. It was not necessarily fine with them, however, as Eph coach Pat Manning remained animated on the bench and frequently exhorted her team to keep its intensity level high until the game's final moments, in which she finally relented and substituted out her big four of Baecher, Rainer, Harding and Rehnquist, much to the delight of the crowd.
Minutes later, they were back on the court following the final buzzer, as they formed the core of a bounding group hug that enveloped the team near half-court.
After five long years, the Ephs had finally shaken off the albatross.
"We've come close over the years with them and came up short," said Manning. "It really came down to playing to win. In past games, we've been afraid and kind of played not to lose—there's a difference. Today we played to win."
The Ephs now look ahead to Wednesday's rescheduled season finale at home against Trinity, where they will attempt to earn at least a share of the conference title. Tip-off is set for 7:00 P.M.
Meanwhile, they've begun to dream about where this season could eventually lead.
"I think we have the potential to go all the way," said Baecher. "I think we're one of the best teams, and we have great chemistry, so there's a ton of potential."