Panther women’s B-ball remains unbeaten

MIDDLEBURY — On Tuesday the Middlebury College women’s basketball pulled away in the middle quarters to rout visiting Plattsburgh State, 60-33 — and improve to 7-0 for the first time since 2001.
Whether this edition of the Panthers can match that team’s 22-5 record and appearance in the NESCAC final remains to be seen. Even equaling the 2001-2002 squad’s 9-0 start will be a challenge: Middlebury will on Thursday at 7 p.m. host a 4-2 Sage team that played in the NCAA Division III tournament last spring, and then the next day conclude first-semester play by visiting a 3-3 Skidmore team that has defeated the Panthers’ NESCAC rival Williams.
But Panther Coach K.J. Krasco said a lot of things are going right for a program that last winter hosted its first NESCAC playoff game since 2013 and posted its first winning NESCAC record since 2001.
“We’ve been playing great team basketball,” Krasco said. “Overall I just think this team has just really bought into the culture, the concepts. They’re really a pleasure to coach. It’s an exciting time to be part of our program.”
In winning those seven games this season the Panthers have outrebounded teams by an average margin of 11.1 per game, held opponents to 28.7 percent shooting from the floor and 44.4 points per game, and on the offensive end moved the ball well enough to record assists on 63 percent of their baskets.
Krasco is happiest with the team defense, which stifled the 1-5 Cardinals all night on Tuesday, holding them to 21.6 percent shooting and forcing 20 turnovers. Middlebury entered the game ranked No. 9 in NCAA Division III in scoring average against.
“That’s been pretty steady for us. We talk a lot about that in practice,” Krasco said. “We’ve had some cold spells (on offense) in almost every game this year, and I think we’ve really bought into the fact that if we defend we can be in any game.”
On Tuesday the Panthers’ cold spell on offense came in a rough first quarter that ended with each team having eight points and six turnovers. Sophomore forward Maya Davis scored four of her game- and career-high 16 points inside in the period to keep the Panthers afloat.
The Panthers adjusted to the Cardinal defense in the second quarter. After Cardinal guard Hanna Whitney gave her team an early 11-8 lead with a three-pointer, Middlebury went on a 16-3 run over the next 6:16.
Sophomore forward Betsy Knox, the team’s leading scorer in the early going, and reserve freshman guard Emily Wander scored four each in the surge, and four other Panthers added points as Middlebury took command.
Krasco noted the guards began to do better working the ball inside against Plattsburgh’s switching player-to-player defense.
“Our kids realized they were switching screens on us and finally realized what was going to be open, and started looking into our posts,” she said.
   PANTHER SENIOR SABRINA Weeks pulls down a rebound during Middlebury’s 60-33 win over Plattsburgh Tuesday night in Pepin Gymnasium.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
By the half Middlebury led, 29-17, with a late three from sophomore Kira Waldman pushing the lead to 12. And then the Panthers kept their foot on the gas after the break by outscoring the Cardinals, 19-5, in the third period, and opening it with a 6-0 run: Davis hit inside on an assist from point guard Alex Huffman, senior guard Sarah Kaufman nailed a short jumper, and Huffman drove for a hoop that made it 34-19 at 7:36.
Krasco said she was pleased to see no let-up out of the halftime break.
“In the third quarter we really started out strong and got some good looks,” she said.
Krasco was also happy to see a dozen assists on the scoresheet and 11 Panthers with points. Waldman and Wander were next after Davis with seven points apiece, Knox had six, senior guard Sabrina Weeks scored five, and Huffman, Kaufman and sophomore forward Lily Kuntz chipped in with four apiece. Huffman and Waldman led with three assists each, and Kaufman had a pair. Anna Thompson led the Cardinals with seven points.
That ball movement and balance is critical for the Panthers, Krasco said.  
“It’s what we want to make us a tougher team to defend,” she said. “We did a better job of that in the second and third quarters.”
Leading the Panthers’ 49-36 advantage on the boards were Davis and Huffman, with eight each, and Waldman, with seven. Huffman led the way with four steals, and Davis, Wander and Waldman had two apiece as the Cardinals turned the ball over 20 times.
On the flip side, the Panthers coughed the ball up 15 times, something Krasco would like to see tightened up as the calendar flips in January to Middlebury’s challenging NESCAC schedule.
“I’d like to see us improve at reducing those turnovers and giving us more opportunities to get shots,” she said.
Krasco also noted the Panthers hit just seven of 14 free throws, and missed some layups and open shots. In tight NESCAC games she said they might not be able to afford those misses.
“Most importantly it’s the mental game. I know every single kid on this team is capable of making a layup and a free throw. But given a game situation and a pressure situation, are they going to do it? That’s where we have to get to,” she said. “So I think it’s just focusing and becoming more mentally strong team.”
On Dec. 1 the Panthers defeated host Colby-Sawyer, 66-59, in overtime. The Panthers ended overtime on a 7-0 run against the 3-1 Chargers, with a Huffman three-pointer the big shot.
Middlebury took a 49-42 fourth-quarter lead on hoops from Kaufman and Davis, but Colby-Sawyer tied the score at 54-54 with 1:26 to play. A Davis layup put Middlebury back on top, but Tianna Sugars banked home a jumper at 0.9 to force overtime.
In overtime, Huffman’s three pushed the lead to 63-49, and the Panthers added three free throws in the final 32 seconds. Knox also hit an overtime trey.
Davis paced Middlebury in that game with 14 points and 14 rebounds, while Knox tacked on 13 points and Huffman added 10 and seven rebounds. Kaufman chipped in 10 points and five rebounds.
Lexie Hamilton led the Chargers with 20 points and six assists, while Sugars posted 16 points and 11 boards.  
On Nov. 29 the Panthers pulled away late to defeat visiting Rensselaer, 64-54, in their home opener.
Middlebury led most of the way, but RPI rallied to lead, 40-39 at 8:13 of the fourth quarter.
Then back-to-back threes from Huffman and Weeks sparked a 16-5 Middlebury run over the next 4:58 to make it 55-45. The Panthers hit nine of 10 free throws to nail down the win.
Knox paced Middlebury with career highs of 23 points and nine rebounds, while Huffman chipped in with 13 points and Weeks added 10 points and five blocks. Davis recorded eight points and eight rebounds. LaKissa Martin led RPI with 19 points.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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