CLINTON, N.Y. — Less than two minutes had elapsed on Sunday afternoon before the Williams women's basketball team, one that has made fast starts one of its trademarks as the season has progressed, found itself down 7-0.
Fortunately for the Ephs, the next 38 minutes were nothing like the first two.
"We didn't get rattled," said Ephs coach Pat Manning on her team's recovery from its early stumble. "We got down to business and did a better job defensively."
By the time her team was done getting down to business, a smothering defensive performance and a trio of double-digit scorers had led Williams out of the early hole to a 57-35 win over Hamilton at Scott Field House. The Ephs' (15-2, 4-1 NESCAC) sixth straight victory moved them into a tie with Trinity for third place in the conference, while the Lady Continentals (8-9, 1-5 NESCA) dropped back below .500 with the setback.
Early on, however, things were looking up for the Lady Continentals, thanks mostly to a sizzling start from Madie Harlem, who was coming off a season-high 27 points in Hamilton's tight win over Middlebury on Friday. Harlem got things rolling with a three-pointer just six seconds into the game, then stole an Eph inbounds pass 45 seconds later and converted the easy layup for a lightning five points to open the game. After both sides traded turnovers, Harlem ignited Hamilton again when she found Samantha Graber in the paint for another bucket, giving the Lady Continentals a 7-0 lead with just 108 seconds elapsed.
It was not a portentous omen for the Ephs, especially given Harlem's lofty status of third in assists and fifth in points among all New England Small College Athletic Conference scorers entering play. To their credit, the Ephs adjusted on defense and held Harlem to just one more field goal for the remainder of the evening.
"It took us a minute to get ready for [Harlem]," said Manning on containing the Lady Continental star. "But after that I was happy with our execution."
Meanwhile, the Eph offense quickly worked its way back into the game. A Baecher bank of the glass got Williams on the board, and three-point jumpers from Jennie Harding and Ellen Cook trimmed the deficit to 9-8 with 15:40 remaining. Less than a minute later, the dwindling Hamilton lead evaporated completely when Grace Rehnquist came off the bench, dribbled the length of the court and worked a give-and-go with Danny Rainer before driving baseline for a short pull-up jump shot to give the Ephs a 10-9 lead with 14:52 remaining.
Although the Lady Continentals kept things close for much of the half, they never led again as the Ephs’ usual brand of energetic defensive play and significant height advantage kept them from establishing a serious offensive presence in the paint.
The Ephs also had scoring issues in the period and mustered just 13 points in the game's first 10 minutes, but a long three from Rehnquist with 9:41 nudged the lead out to five and kicked off a slow but steady run that saw the Ephs shoot over 50 percent from the field in the game's second 10-minute block. Baecher, who led all scorers on the evening with 13 points, did her part with a pair of physical layups, followed in short order by a knifing layup from Harding off a 4-on-2 rush for the Ephs that gave them a 10-point lead with 5:14 to go and forced Hamilton coach Michelle Collins to burn her second timeout.
At first, the stoppage appeared to have some effect as the Lady Continentals scratched away at the deficit via a corner jumper from Eliza Howe and a Serena Ward three from nearly the same spot as the shot clock expired with 2:42 left in the half, closing the gap to 27-19.
From there though, the Ephs launched into a 10-0 run that spanned both halves and essentially put the game out of reach. Rehnquist provided the first quintet of points to end the first half with a pretty reverse layup under the basket followed by a drive in which she split a pair of Hamilton defenders and drew a foul to set a three-point play in motion, leaving the Ephs up 32-19 heading into the break.
On their first possession after second half began, the Ephs provided a major psychological blow to their opponents when Cook beat the shot-clock buzzer with a three from several feet behind the arc, bringing the Williams bench to its feet and stretching the advantage to a hefty 16 points, one that Rainer burnished even further with her first basket of the game off a Kellie Macdonald steal soon after.
That 18-point margin was slowly whittled down ever so slightly thanks to some determined play from the Lady Continentals, who pulled to within 43-30 when Harlem made her first basket since the game's opening minute on a baseline drive. However, Baecher immediately answered back with a long jumper and a three-point play near the rim to push the lead back out to 18 before Cook all but iced it with a three in transition to make the score 51-30 with 8:16 to play, giving the Ephs their third road win in less than a week.
Williams' tough schedule now gets even tougher, as the Ephs travel east on Wednesday to take on archrival No. 3 Amherst in a game that will not count towards the NESCAC standings. Tip-off will be at 8 p.m.