MIDDLEBURY — A Middlebury College women’s basketball team with a lineup finally looking more like what the Panthers hoped for surged to open Tuesday’s second half on the way to a 65-58 victory over visiting Colby-Sawyer.
The game marked only the second game this season that last season’s leading rebounder, senior forward Katie Pett, and second-leading scorer and rebounder, Scarlett Kirk, had taken the floor together.
Pett went down with a shoulder injury on Dec. 7 and missed five games before returning for 12 minutes in the Panthers’ 70-44 loss vs. undefeated NESCAC rival Tufts on Sunday. She played 17 minutes and contributed nine boards and eight points on Tuesday.
Kirk missed the first semester while helping the Panther women’s soccer team reach the NCAA Division III final four. Since her return, the Panthers, now 6-7, have gone 4-3, including a Friday NESCAC win over visiting Bates, 67-54. On Tuesday, her 13 rebounds helped the Panthers dominate Colby-Sawyer on the boards, 49-31.
Coach Noreen Pecsok — who also returns three other key rotation players, senior guards Sarah Marcus and Laura Lowry and junior forward Rachel Crews, from last year’s 14-12 NESCAC playoff team — is excited to have all hands on deck.
“Katie practiced a bit last week, and it was the first time she and Scarlett had been on the floor together in a year,” Pecsok said. “It’s great to have them back. They’re great kids, and they share the ball.”
In Tuesday’s first half, the visiting Chargers started quickly, exploiting the interior of Middlebury’s man-to-man defense for four hoops inside, three from Kelsey Cahill (who finished with a game-high 16 points), in an opening 15-7 run that prompted Pecsok to call time at 11:54.
Pecsok spent the rest of the game regularly switching from man to zone defenses, a tactic she said the Panthers will use all season. The Chargers started going away from their productive inside attack and tried more often to shoot over the Panthers, a tactic that resulted in a 5-for-27 performance from three-point range. The Panthers also did a better job on Cahill, especially in the second half, in forcing her further from the basket.
“We’re mixing things up defensively. We’re trying to confuse people defensively,” Pecsok said.
After the timeout, Middlebury ripped off a 10-0 spurt in which Lowry picked up three of her four assists and freshman forward Elizabeth Knox scored four of her eight points. Kirk capped it with a putback at 7:28.
The Chargers retook the lead at 23-19 on two buckets on the break, a steal conversion (they scored 16 points after Panther miscues, a weak spot for the home team), and a three-pointer.
But Crews, who scored 10 of her 14 points in the first half, responded with a left-hand move in the paint to spark a 10-3 Panther surge in which she also sank two free throws. Buckets by Marcus and Knox made it 29-27, Panthers, but Katie McCarthy’s long-range buzzer-beater gave Colby-Sawyer a 30-29 lead at the break.
Marcus sparked the Panther surge to open the second half with 11 of her team-high 15 points in the first 5:25 — a three, a steal conversion, a layup on the break set up by Lowry, two free throws and a drive to the hoop.
After the Chargers’ Ashley Fruzzetti sank a three at 14:25 to make it 40-37, Crews and junior forward Alexis Coolidge combined for the next 10 Panther points as the lead grew to 50-43 at 9:36.
The Panthers kept attacking the basket, and consecutive drives by Marcus, Pett and Lowry and then a jumper and a free throw by Knox pushed the lead to 11, 59-48, with 4:00 to go.
Colby-Sawyer came to within five in the final minute, but Pett went six-for-six from the line in the final 1:27 to ice the win.
“Katie Pett came back and got to play some real minutes, which was awesome,” Pecsok said. “We missed her terribly, learned a lot without her and got better … So hopefully now we’ll be better with her.”
The Panthers shot 48 percent from the floor in the second half after connecting at a 38 percent clip in the first, and held the Chargers to 34 percent in the second half after their 39 percent first-half performance.
“I told the team in the second half Colby-Sawyer didn’t lose the game, we won it,” Pecsok said. “Nothing came particularly easy to us, but we stayed focused and we hung in there, and we rebounded the ball, and that cures a lot of things.”
In the Panthers’ 70-44 loss on Sunday vs. 12-0 Tufts, the game was tied at 17-17 late in the first half when Pecsok said the Panthers committed a half-dozen unforced turnovers that led to a decisive Jumbo 15-4 run to close the half.
Knox led Middlebury with 13 points to go along with seven rebounds, while Kirk recorded 12 points and 10 rebounds and Lowry added 12 points.
In the Panthers’ 67-54 win over Bates (7-7, 0-1), the Panthers took a 21-7 lead as Marcus knocked down three early three-pointers and led at the half, 34-15. They maintained a double-digit lead after the break and outrebounded the Bobcats, 54-31.
Kirk had 17 points and 10 rebounds, and Knox recorded 10 boards and 14 points. Marcus finished with 15 points, and Coolidge added 14 points and eight rebounds.
Even in the Tufts setback the Panthers held a 35-34 edge on the boards, which Pecsok said is a key part of the game plan to make up for what she described as the Panthers’ “limitations” — they have not shot exceptionally well, .358 from the floor thus far, and they are not the tallest team in the league.
Rebounding, hard work in changing defensive looks, and continued work to improve their offensive efficiency will be critical if the Panthers are to compete with the best teams in NESCAC, Pecsok said.
“We’re trying to make people work defensively … make people work offensively, and rebound the ball,” she said.