AMHERST, MA -- For the first time, the Williams College women's basketball team will play for a New England Small College Athletic Conference championship.
Senior Claire Baecher scored 15 points, classmate Danny Rainer added 14 and sophomore Kellie Macdonald added 13 Saturday night as the Ephs dispatched a tough-minded Middlebury squad, 59-49, in a conference semifinal game played at Amherst's LeFrak Gymnasium. For the six seniors, it was the first time they've won in LeFrak.
"I'm just very proud of my team to be in a position to play for our first NESCAC championship," Ephs' head coach Pat Manning said. "Our seniors have provided great leadership all year, but especially the last month durng crunch time. I'm just proud of the whole group."
The third-seeded Ephs (22-4) will take on well-known foe Amherst (25-1), the second-seed, in the NESCAC title tilt tomorrow at 2:30 p.m. The Jeffs defeated eight-seeded Bowdoin, 60-45, in Saturday's other semifinal.
Two three-pointers in the first half essentially gave the Ephs a lead that would not be endangered. After a difficult first 10 minutes, the Ephs went into the locker room up 28-23. Jennie Harding (six points) then came out and hit a trey from the right corner 14 seconds into the second stanza. On Williams ensuing possession, Macdonald nailed a trey that made it 34-23 Ephs.
"We felt they might change things up defensively," Manning said. "We talked about it at halftime and they did, they came out in a 2-3 zone. We were ready for it. I thought Kellie had a very nice game for us, she came up big on both ends of the floor. Danny was also doing it on both ends, passing the ball, scoring inside blocking shots. And I thought Claire really battled through the whole game and came up big when we needed her."
Williams lead would not dip below 10 points over the final 8 minutes and 51 seconds.
The Ephs played sound defensively, holding Middlebury to 30.6 percent shooting on the night while blocking 13 Panther shots, seven from Baecher alone, who also added seven rebounds and three steals. Rainer added three blocks and six rebounds to her 14-point night. Baecher's seven blocks set a NESCAC Tournament record.
It was a bad news-good news first half. The bad news was Middlebury came out with much more intensity and execution early on and put the Ephs in a 10-point hole rather quickly. The good news is despite scoring eight points in the first 10 minutes, Williams went into the locker room at halftime up 28-23.
On the Ephs first six possessions of the contest, they were 0 for 5 from the floor with one turnover. The Panthers were smothering Baecher as soon as she touched the ball, doulbling and some times tripling the Ephs leading scorer. They also froced six Williams turnovers before the 10-minute mark.
Sarah Marcus gave Middlebury an 18-8 lead with 10:12 to go when she was fouled on her drive to the basket. She hit both free throws to give the Panthers their second 10-point lead of the half.
"Middlebury came after us," Manning said. "They had great intensity and played great defense. I give them a lot of credit, they wanted it."
The Ephs' began to come out of their shooting freeze when Rehnquist nailed a trey from the top of they key with 9:55 to go to make it 18-11. The Ephs would miss on their next four shot attempts, but held defensively, and Rainer made it 18-13 with a lay-up with 6:32 remaining.
A jumper by Lowry made it 20-13 Middlebury but Baecher answered with a three-pointer from the right corner to cut the deficit to four. After a defensive rebound, Rainer followed up her own miss with an offensive rebound and putback to make it 20-18. Following another one-and-done possession for the Panthers, Macdonald was fouled driving to the hoop and tied the score at 20 by hitting two free throws.
A turnaround jumper in the paint by Macdonald gave the Ephs their first lead with 2:12 remaining in the half. It should be noted the Ephs held Middlebury to just two points over a span of 9:01 to get back into the contest. The Panthers shot just 27.6 (8 of 29) percent from the floor in the half, thanks in part to eight Williams blocks, four by Baecher.
"The comeback began because nobody panicked," Manning said. "We started focusing on our defense and stopped worrying about our offense. We were protecting the paint better, blocking shots and crashing the boards better."
Rehnquist finished with eight points and five rebounds for Williams. Scarlett Kirk led Middlebury with 17 points.