Panther women’s basketball team sweeps NESCAC foes

MIDDLEBURY — Depth, defense and ball movement helped the Middlebury College women’s basketball team sweep two visiting NESCAC opponents this past weekend as the Panthers opened league play.
Middlebury improved to 11-2 with the victories on Saturday over Wesleyan, 77-60, and Friday over Connecticut, 75-59.
In the games the Panthers’ bench outscored opponents’ substitutes by 64-32, they forced 44 turnovers and recorded 24 steals, and they assisted 37 of their 55 baskets.
Senior guard Sabrina Weeks, who along with senior guard Sarah Kaufman comes off the bench to provide some of that depth, said the Panthers enjoy playing together — and just want to succeed as a group.
“We have 15 players we all trust and can play in the game,” said Weeks, who chipped in 16 points, six rebounds, three assists, two blocks and three steals over the weekend. “We move the ball. Every night it’s someone else who steps up. We’re just having fun, and we love each other and we love playing together.”
Coach KJ Krasco, whose team this past winter hosted a NESCAC playoff game for the first time since 2001, said the Panthers’ depth and willingness to share the ball make them hard to defend.
“Both teams, eventually I think we were able to wear them down,” Krasco said on Saturday. “Last night two of our starters had great nights, (sophomore forwards) Betsy (Knox) and Maya (Davis), and tonight going to (sophomore forward) Lily (Kuntz) off the bench, she probably had the best game of her career. I feel like that’s why we are a tough team to scout and why we are as good as we are.”
The Panther offense also looked crisper than earlier in the season, even against teams with winning records — Connecticut is 8-3, 1-1 in league play, and Wesleyan is 8-4, 0-2 NESCAC. Jumpers fell, cutters sank shots in the lane, and post players converted.
The numbers bear out the eye test: The Panthers shot 46.2 percent this weekend, raising their season percentage to 40.4.
Krasco said the team is getting better at running a flexible offensive set.  
“It’s really the second season of running the offense,” Krasco said. “We also over the last couple of months have been able to put more than one option in. So now that we have three, four, five options it’s tough to scout us. Because we don’t necessarily have play calls. We just play and run our offense based on our own little secrets. It’s been fun to let the kids play freely within some sort of structure.”
Getting transition hoops after the steals doesn’t hurt the percentages, either.
“We definitely think our defense always starts our offense,” Weeks said. “The steals, again we trust each other to play five strong. And if everybody does their job, that’s what’s going to happen, we’re going to force turnovers.”
It took a while in Saturday’s 77-60 win for the Panthers to take charge. A 10-2 Wesleyan run sparked by five points from point guard Olivia Gorman (10 in all) and four from forward Maddie Bledsoe (11) made it 30-27 Cardinals late in the first half.
Middlebury then closed the half on an 8-2 run over the final 3:25: a Davis hoop in the post set up by sophomore guard Kira Waldman, a Weeks three on an inside-out pass from Davis, a Kaufman putback of her own miss, and a Weeks free throw.
The Panthers still led by three (45-42) when Cardinal forward Heidi Scarth (13 points on six-for-six shooting, all inside), hit on the break from guard Kadiyah Mathews (10 points) with five minutes to go in the third.
But then the Panthers outscored Wesleyan by 11-4 to lead by 56-46 after three quarters. Kaufman (whose nine points left her at 992 for her career) drove for two and sank two free throws, Davis hit inside, Kuntz nailed a three, and Weeks scored in the lane.
Eight Panthers —  including junior center Catherine Harrison, who contributed two buckets, one assisted by junior point guard Alex Huffman — scored in the fourth as they pulled away.
Seven Panthers scored at least six points: Kuntz (13), Davis (12), Knox (10), Kaufman (9), Harrison and Weeks (8 each), and junior guard Colleen Caveney (6). On the boards Huffman (8), Kuntz (7) and Knox (6) led the way, Huffman (7) and Kaufman (5) led in assists, and Kuntz (4) and Huffman and Knox (3 each) led in steals.
On Friday the Panthers snapped a 52-52 fourth-quarter tie in the 75-59 win over Connecticut. The Camels erased a 52-44 Panther lead with eight straight points from Mairead Hynes, but the Panthers took the lead for good, 59-52, on a Knox jumper, a Davis hoop inside and a Kaufman three-pointer.
The Camels led by as many as 10 points in the third period, but the Panthers erupted for a 15-0 run triggered by by six points from Knox.
Weeks said the Panthers were not happy to find themselves trailing, but remained confident. 
“We can outwork teams, and we trust each other,” Weeks said. “We don’t worry when we get down by 10 points.”
Davis tied a career high with 18 points and added nine boards. Knox scored 16 points and added six assists. Huffman finished with 13 rebounds, scored 12 points and picked up five steals. Off the bench Waldman scored nine and Weeks and Kaufman had eight apiece. Middlebury outrebounded the Camels, 42-25. Hynes led the Camels with 13 points, and Sami Ashton added 11.
Next up for the Panthers are games this weekend at Bates (5-9, 0-2) and league power Tufts (11-2, 1-1). Krasco would like her team to play better in first halves, but overall likes what she sees.
“We have a group that wants to win, and they want to do it as a team,” she said. “And that’s the difference between us and maybe some of the teams we’re playing. Nobody cares who gets the credit as long as the outcome is the W.”
 Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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