MIDDLEBURY — A young and shorthanded Middlebury College women’s basketball team outlasted visiting Castleton on Tuesday for its first victory, 51-43.
The Panthers — who are playing this semester without key juniors Lauren Sanchez and Allison Needham, who are studying abroad, and on Tuesday were without senior guard Alana Wall due to a scheduling conflict — improved their record to 1-3.
Castleton dropped to 2-3 despite team highs from former Middlebury Union High School standout Katie Hoxsie, a senior guard, in minutes (36), rebounds (9), assists (5) and steals (2).
Coach Noreen Pecsok’s Panthers started one senior, center Kaitlyn Fallon (12 points on six-of-12 shooting); three sophomores, guards Brittany Perfetti (13 points) and Maddie Moreau and forward Stephany Surette (10 rebounds, 6 blocks); and one freshman, point guard Leah Kepping (a game-high 14 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals).
Despite the early losing record, Pecsok said she has enjoyed working with this group. The first adjective she used did not describe the Panthers’ inexperience, although one reflecting that attribute came not far behind.
“This is a very, very fun team, and we’re young. And as long as we keep that in mind — mostly me … we’re going to be OK,” she said.
When the veterans return, and the younger players have learned after getting the early head start, Pecsok expects the Panthers to hold their own.
“Obviously, second semester our competition gets better, but I really think that they’re going to get better and better,” she said of her team.
On Tuesday, the Panthers used tough defense to take a 15-2 lead after 7:27. Moreau, Perfetti and Kepping each sank treys, Fallon hit in the post, Perfetti converted a steal, and Kepping capped the run with two free throws after another steal.
But the Panthers couldn’t sustain the momentum as they, too, grew careless with the ball. Partly their turnover problems derived from the Spartans’ commitment to defense, but the game’s combined 56 turnovers (31 for Castleton, 25 for Middlebury) also showed the Panthers are still on what Pecsok called a learning curve.
“They played as a team defensively for the first time tonight, and we’re still waiting to play as a team offensively, but we’re seeing signs of it,” she said. “A lot of times we’re one pass short. ... We talk about it all the time in practice. I’m confident we’re going to get there.”
Castleton fought back, largely because West Rutland’s Kristie Dunchus (11 points, 10 in the first half) heated up. As the half came to a close, Kepping drove, Hoxsie blocked her shot, and at the other end Dunchus beat the buzzer with a jumper, and the Panther halftime lead was just 26-20.
The Panthers gradually stretched the lead in the second half. Twice early on Kepping hoops pushed it to 10, but buckets by Vanessa Powers (nine points) kept the Spartans close.
At 9:49 Kepping stole the ball and converted a three-point play that made it 42-28. Shortly afterward, a hoop by Laura Cary (12 points) cut the lead to 11 at 44-33, but two Perfetti free throws at 4:08 pushed the margin to 13.
But the Panthers, who shot just 31 percent for the game, kept missing, and the Spartans, who shot 31.5 percent, went on a run. Tarryn Bolognani hit two free throws and a hoop, and Powers shrugged off two Surette blocks to contribute a third-chance put-back, and it was 46-39.
Surette hit a free throw at 1:59, and then Cary pounded the boards for a three-point play at 1:45 that made it 47-42. After Perfetti missed a trey, Cary hit one free throw at 1:09 to make it 47-43. Kepping missed the front end of a one-and-one at 1:02, but Cary misfired in the lane, and Fallon pulled down the key board. Perfetti sank two free throws, Cary missed again, and Kepping rebounded and made two free throws to seal the Panthers’ first win.
Pecsok said she liked the way the Panthers played with “a little bit more reckless abandon” against Castleton than they had in previous games. Overall, she said she needs to let her team loose to rely on its speed and athleticism on both ends of the court to succeed this winter.
“It’s like following a Ouija board. I don’t know where it’s going, and I’ve got to trust them, because they’re going to be as good as they are,” she said. “The quicker they catch on, and the longer they stay fearless, the better we’re going to be.”