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Panther women’s basketball coming together

MIDDLEBURY — After splitting their first two NESCAC games of the season this past weekend, the Middlebury College women’s basketball team hung on to defeat visiting Potsdam State on Tuesday, 65-53, a result that pushed the Panthers’ record to 9-5 under first-year coach K.J. Krasco.
The two wins mean the Panthers have already surpassed the program’s seven from the 2013-2014 season, and the 14 victories from the winter before that are within reach.
Krasco, however, was less excited about the record than she was to see her team play well in defeating Bates on Friday, and then have good moments in a Sunday loss to Tufts (including an 18-5 first-half run), the No. 9 team in NCAA Division III, as well as in Tuesday’s victory — not that she doesn’t want to see more from the Panthers.
“We’ve taken strides this week. Overall, I’m happy with the progress. I’m not content. We need to get better from here on out,” Krasco said. “We need to know what we didn’t do well and figure out a way to improve on that.”
The central positive has been the Panthers’ defense. They are holding other teams to 31.7 percent shooting from the floor and led the NESCAC in that category entering Tuesday’s game.
They also held Potsdam to 13 points in Tuesday’s first half before the Bears began to score off turnovers and from the free throw line after the break.
“Our defense has been good, and at times in the first half it looked really good. In the second half we were trying to play over-aggressive, and that’s not us,” Krasco said. “We talk about being able to contain.”
Two larger issues cropped up on Tuesday: Potsdam grabbed 13 offensive rebounds, and the Panthers turned the ball over 18 times. The Panthers have a slight edge in rebounding overall this year, but opponents have an edge on the offensive glass, and Middlebury has turned the ball over 17.4 times a game.
Many of those turnovers on Tuesday came after Potsdam started to press the Panthers with about 13 minutes to go and Middlebury ahead by 41-25. With the Panthers missing four of six free throws, the Bears whittled the lead to six, 59-53, with 1:01 to go and got the ball back after another turnover seven seconds later.
But the Panthers secured defensive rebounds on Potsdam’s next two trips down the floor, and freshman point guard Sarah Kaufman (17 points, seven assists and seven boards, all team highs) sank four straight free throws to make it 63-53. After a Bear turnover (the Panthers forced 21), sophomore forward Elizabeth Knox (9 points) hit two more from the line at 0:14 to create the final score.
Krasco said the miscues were a problem on Tuesday, although she said the Panthers had fared better in that department vs. Bates (12 turnovers) and Tufts (10).
“We just turned the ball over on a couple possessions, and that’s kind of a weakness we’re trying to fight through. Turnovers have kind have been our Achilles’ heel all season, and I thought this weekend against our conference opponents we did a much better job of not turning it over,” she said.
At the same time, Krasco acknowledged Bates and Tufts did not press the Panthers’ young ballhandlers: Sophomore Siobhan O’Sullivan starts with Kaufman at guard along with senior Alexis Coolidge, and freshman Sabrina Weeks and sophomore Krystina Reynolds see significant time at guard off the bench.
“We’re young in the guard position, but I have seen a lot of progress from the first game coming back after break until now. I do think we have some composure,” Krasco said. “We’re just nervous about the pressure teams are bringing in. We try to simulate it in practice. It’s just being able to translate what we do in practice into a game.”
Krasco credits the leadership of Coolidge (8 points on Tuesday), senior forward Rachel Crews (16 points, 5 rebounds on Tuesday), and senior reserve forward Holly Lanchantin for helping the Panthers improve.
“We’ve had some really important upperclassmen step up in different situations. Our leadership has really stepped up since we’ve gotten back from the break,” Krasco said. “We have a lot of talent in the freshman and sophomore classes, so with the combination of the leadership and the talent in the younger classes, we’re really starting to put it together, and that’s exciting.”
On Tuesday, injury-plagued Potsdam showed up with just seven players and a 1-9 record, but showed plenty of heart in rallying in the second half. Forwards Bailey Weigel (17 points, 7 rebounds) and Katie Lavoie (14 points, 11 boards) keyed the comeback.
“I don’t think their record is indicative of the kind of team they are. They’re tough, they fight,” Krasco said.
On Sunday, visiting Tufts broke open a tight game by outscoring Middlebury, 18-2, over the final 10:08 in a 57-37 win. The Jumbos improved to 12-1.
Crews led Middlebury with 14 points; Knox added eight points with six rebounds; Kaufman finished with six points, seven assists and seven boards; and Weeks pulled down a game-high eight rebounds.
 On Friday, the Panthers defeated visiting Bates, 65-56, in the league opener for both teams. Knox (21 points), Coolidge (16), and Kaufman (14) accounted for 51 of the Panther points. The Panthers used an 18-2 first-half run to lead at the break, 36-29, and led by at least five points the rest of the way. Kaufman hauled in a career-best 14 rebounds, and O’Sullivan added four assists, three steals, six points and 11 rebounds.
Looking back over the three games, Krasco said she sees a team that is beginning to gel.
“We are asking a lot of our younger freshmen and sophomores,” Krasco said. “They’re really just starting to get to know each other on the court, along with our upperclassmen. It takes time for that to happen, and I think overall the whole team has bought into wanting to do it as a team, and when we do, the outcome is usually pretty positive.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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