Sports

Karl Lindholm: Women’s hoop has a record breaker: Alexa Mustafaj

ALEXA MUSTAFAJ GOES to the hoop! Mustafaj established the career scoring record in Middlebury women’s basketball this winter — as a junior! She averaged 23.3 points a game, leading NESCAC, for the 17-9 Panthers and earning All-American recognition.  Photo by Will Costello

In the quarterfinals of the NESCAC women’s basketball tournament on Feb. 17, Middlebury was down by four in the third quarter to the dreaded Amherst Mammoths. 

At the 5:13 mark, Middlebury’s Alexa Mustafaj was fouled going to the hoop and stepped to the line for two free throws. 

She made the first — and the PA announcer informed the crowd that she had tied the career scoring record of 1,602 points held by Middlebury Hall of Famer Sladja Kovajanic ’93.

No problem. She calmly sank the second to become the leading scorer in the 45-year history of women’s hoop at Middlebury. 

She ended the season with 1,628 points and led the NESCAC conference in scoring with 23.6 points a game. She scored 43 in a game against MIT and had four 30-point games: Union (36), Williams (33), Amherst (33), Tufts (31). Alexa earned a raft of postseason honors, including first team All-NESCAC and honorable mention All-American. 

Now, here’s the good news: Alexa is a junior! 

She will back next year — along with other starters from this year’s team including Augusta Dixon, the leading rebounder in NESCAC, who had 24- and 22-rebound games. Only two seniors are departing. 

Of course, Alexa made that foul shot against Amherst — she shoots from the line at an 83.1% rate, second in the league. She made four more foul shots near the end to ice a tough 56-48 tournament win. 

Alexa Mustafaj is a shooter with nearly Caitlin Clark range. At 5’5”, she is a diminutive dynamo, who plays the off-guard (or, aptly, the “shooting” guard) position. Junior Callie Messina capably plays the point. Alexa led the conference in three-point hoops (52) and had the best percentage in the league (.331) from the arc. 

She shoots right-handed, but “I actually prefer going to my left and finishing on the left side of the court. I feel more explosive on the left side. When my dad played basketball, it was the same way with him.” 

So, how did a girl from a “big Albanian family” in Yonkers, N.Y., decide to come to rural Vermont for college? “Middlebury was the first school to contact me,” she explained. “KJ (Middlebury coach KJ Krasco) and Savannah Morgan (assistant coach, at the time) saw me in a tournament in my sophomore year when I was playing for an AAU team, the Empire State Blue Flame.”

The recruiting was complicated by COVID. “We spent a lot of time zooming,” KJ Krasco said. Alexa came to Middlebury without ever having been able to visit formally as the campus was “closed.” Her family, however, did drive up to Middlebury just to get a look at the place. 

The human factor was important. “I just clicked with the players on the team,” she says now. “I wanted to play basketball in college, but also have a life outside basketball.” 

MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE COACHES Catherine Harrison, left, and KJ Krasco, right, celebrate Panther guard Alexa Mustafaj and her record-breaking performance — and the Panthers’ victory over the Amherst Mammoths — in the NESCAC Tournament.
Photo by Will Costello

Alexa’s family has nurtured her talent. “We are a big basketball family. When we played in Hoboken last winter against Stevens Tech, the stands were filled with my uncles and aunts and cousins!” Her older brother, Avni, was an All-Liberty League player on the Vassar College team, graduating last year.

“We live on a dead-end street, a cul de sac,” she told me, “and my cousins’ house is on the top of the street. We have a hoop out on the street, and I played with my cousins and my brother (three older boys) every day after school until the sun went down. We still do!

“One day, I went home and I was crying. My mother said, ‘You can’t come in here and cry. Stick it out’ — and I didn’t cry anymore.”

This story likely contributes to why her coach, KJ, calls Alexa “the most competitive player I have ever coached — the way she competes is infectious. She plays aggressively; that’s why her foul shooting is so important. Her teammates see how hard she works.” 

KJ is also quick to note how “humble and kind-hearted she is. She always has the team in mind.” She speaks glowingly of this team’s “culture”: “This group loves to be in the gym, either alone or collectively.”

Alexa also has great admiration for her coach: “KJ has instilled so much confidence in me. She has been a mentor to me on and off the floor! We have a great relationship and trust each other. I will forever be grateful.” 

A sociology major, Alexa’s plan for the future at this point is to pursue a career in the sports world. In Winter Term ’23, she took the course “Coaching and Issues in Sports” led by Midd alumnus and Philadelphia Phillies scout Erick Dalton ’04. In that class, students were introduced to a number of Middlebury alums making their lives in sports-related fields.

Last fall, Alexa undertook an internship in the athletic department at Middlebury with Athletic Director Erin Quinn and Director of Athletic Communications Alexis Paquette. This upcoming summer she has an internship with the David Ortiz Children’s Foundation. 

The expectations for next year are high indeed for Alexa and her teammates and coaches. Each of the last three years, the team has improved its record: 12-11 (’22), 15-11 (’23), 17-9 (’24). This year’s team is back largely intact. The goal is a NESCAC Championship and an invitation to the NCAA Tournament. 

Team goals are paramount. Barring injury, however, Alexa next year will likely break the men’s scoring record of 1,844 points, set by John Humphrey ’88, and perhaps become the first 2,000-point scorer in Middlebury basketball history. 

***

Have you jumped on the women’s college basketball bandwagon, inspired by Caitlin Clark? Were you one of the 14 million people who watched Clark’s Iowa team play LSU in the national tournament?

Well, then, let’s get together next Nov. 17 in Pepin Gymnasium to watch this D3 version of exciting women’s college hoop in the Panthers’ first home game of the season against Union.

—————

Karl Lindholm, Ph.D., is the Emeritus Dean of Advising and Assistant Professor of American Studies at Middlebury College. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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