Women’s hoop advances in postseason

PANTHER JUNIOR ALEXA Mustafaj puts up a shot on Saturday during the Middlebury women’s basketball home NESCAC quarterfinal win over Amherst. Mustafaj became the program’s all-time leading scorer during the victory. She’s scored 1,606 points in less than three years. Photo by Will Costello

MIDDLEBURY — The fourth-seeded Middlebury College women’s basketball pulled away from visiting No. 5 Amherst in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s NESCAC quarterfinal to prevail, 59-48. The Panthers thus advanced to this coming weekend’s NESCAC final four at top-seeded Bowdoin. 

Middlebury (17-8) will take on Bowdoin, at 23-2 the No. 11 team in NCAA Division III, at 2 p.m. Saturday. Second seed Trinity (18-6) and third seed Bates (21-4) will square off at 4:30 p.m. Saturday’s winners will meet on Sunday at noon for NESCAC title game and the league’s automatic NCAA bid. The Panthers’ only NESCAC losses have come to those three teams, all in close games. 

In Saturday’s quarterfinal, Panther junior Alexa Mustafaj scored 18 points and became the program’s all-time leading scorer with 1,606 points. She supplanted 1993 graduate Sladja Kovinajic at the top of the leaderboard. Kovinajic finished with her career with 1,602 points. 

Amherst (19-6) led throughout Saturday’s first half, when the Panthers struggled to get good looks against the taller Mammoths in their man-to-man defense. The first quarter ended with Amherst on top, 12-7, with Middlebury staying close thanks to five points from guard Calie Messina.

The Mammoths stretched the lead to 22-11 on a Reeya Patel three-pointer with 4:19 to go in the second period, but the Panthers cut the lead to 26-18 at the half as Messina nailed a three — she was three-for-four from deep — and a jumper, and Mustafaj, who had a quiet half, added her first bucket. 

In the third quarter, the Panthers’ “man” defense ratcheted up a notch while the offense gained traction. Jumpers by Augusta Dixon and Messina and then two Mustafaj free throws at 5:13 cut the Amherst lead to 26-24, and the teams traded buckets over the next few minutes.

 The Panthers tied the game at 33-33 with 53 seconds to go in the period. Messina missed a three-pointer on the right flank, but Bethany Lucey snared the offensive board and whipped it back out to Messina at the same spot behind the arc. Messina fired again and swished the shot. 

Amherst regained the lead with a free throw at 0:36, but Dixon set up a go-ahead Lucey three-pointer as time wound down, and it was 36-34, Middlebury.

At 8:46 of the fourth Mammoth Kori Barach drove for two, and the game was tied at 36-36. The Panthers answered with a quick 8-1 run. Messina hit a three, and Lucey set up Brooke Collins for a short jumper. Dixon hit a jumper in the lane, from Messina, was fouled and hit the free throw, and it was 44-37 at 7:20.

Amherst managed a couple buckets, but the Panthers were now on a roll. Mustafaj nailed a three from the top of the key, and baskets by Collins and Mustafaj pushed the Panther lead to 52-42 at 3:57. The Mammoths came no closer than nine the rest of the way.

Leading the Mammoths were Maya Cwalini, with 16 points; Barach, with 12; and Patel, with eight points and eight rebounds. 

Messina paced the Panthers with a career-high 19 points. Dixon finished with nine points, including a coast-to-coast ramble for an acrobatic layup after one of her 15 rebounds, and three steals. Lucey contributed five points, five boards and a team-best three assist. Collins scored six, and she and Gabby Stuart were vital cogs in a defense that forced 17 turnovers and held Amherst to 33.3% shooting. 

Coach KJ Krasco noted the Panthers’ better job defensively in the second half. The Mammoths shot 44% in the first half before hitting just seven of 29 (24%) from the field after the break.

“We embraced their physicality in the third and fourth quarters and made it a lot more challenging for them to get open looks,” Krasco said.  

Overall, she was pleased with the Panthers’ effort and their many contributors.

“It was a great team win. I feel like we had some people step up and make some big shots, and also just move the basketball. And that’s what we’ve been emphasizing these last couple weeks, playing team basketball,” Krasco said. 

The Panthers have also improved over the course of the season and have now won 11 of their past 14, with the losses including by three points at home to Bowdoin and two points at Trinity. 

Krasco explained why.

“(It’s) the kids that are part of the program, the work they’ve put in. They’re more committed than any other team that I’ve coached here,” she said. “They love each other. We love them. I think they’re coachable. I think they want it. And they’ve shown it. Now it’s about putting a 40-minute game so we can keep this thing going …

“We believe we can beat anyone we play.”

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