WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — With a little less than seven minutes to go in the first half at Chandler Gym, Mary Kate O'Brien pulled down the rebound off a wayward jumper from Kristina Conroy and began heading up court. As the guard approached the 3-point line, she suddenly slipped a bounce-pass to her right to Claire Baecher, who launched up a shot from behind the arc and found nothing but net for a 29-11 Ephs lead.
In one otherwise typical play, the present and the future of Williams women's basketball were in ideal alignment.
A brilliant effort from Baecher and a roaring start to the first half propelled the No. 25 Ephs to a 62-36 win over Middlebury on Saturday afternoon. The win represented a strong bounce-back effort for the Ephs (16-3, 5-1 NESCAC), who were coming off a gritty 54-48 loss to archrival No. 3 Amherst on Wednesday.
With the loss, the Panthers (10-9, 2-4 NESCAC) saw their winning streak of two snapped and slipped into a tie for sixth place in the conference.
After falling behind 6-0 to start Wednesday's loss, the Ephs appeared determined to avoid the same fate here and raced out of the gate to a lightning 9-0 lead. A pair of spin moves under the basket from Baecher and Danny Rainer, respectively, netted the Ephs their first four points. A mid-range Ellen Cook jumper off a kick-out from Kellie Macdonald, who had retrieved her own rebound, made it six, and a three from the top of the key by Baecher pushed the Eph lead to nine with just 3:36 elapsed in the game.
Afterwards, Eph coach Pat Manning talked about how critical it was for her side to get off to a quick start.
"We talked about that. We were disappointed after Wednesday but you’ve just go to get over it and move on," Manning said. "We've come out strong after each loss, and we really focused on that, doing the little things to get back into our game."
Indeed, the Ephs have more than, "come out strong," this year; in fact, they've won each of their three games following a loss by at least 25 points.
The Panthers, meanwhile, struggled to find open shots over the Ephs' aggressive perimeter defense and were held off the scoreboard until Scarlett Kirk used a nice head fake to create some space before firing home a jumper for two of her six points on the day.
After Rainer sank a pair of free throws to push the lead back out to nine, Noreen Pecsok called a 30-second timeout in an effort to settle her team down. Initially, the move paid dividends as the teams traded baskets for the next few minutes, leaving the score at 17-9 in favor of Williams with 11:59 remaining in the half from there.
From that point on, though, it was all Williams, as the Ephs launched into a 16-2 run that left them firmly in control well before the first half drew to a close. Grace Rehnquist was the early offensive star, as the dynamic scorer scored eight quick points off the bench via a pair of characteristically long threes (including a 25-footer) and a coast-to-coast layup following a steal from Sarah Marcus to give the Ephs a 22-9 advantage.
While those were Rehnquist's final points of the night, Baecher more than picked up the slack and scored nine of the Ephs next 11 points in impressively varied fashion: a put-back of a wild 3-point attempt from Baecher, the aforementioned 3-pointer off a feed from O'Brien, a beautiful running layup off a perfectly timed pass from Cook and an uncontested bucket under the hoop that gave the Ephs a 33-11 lead with just over four minutes remaining in the period.
Of the 33 points, 14 belonged to Baecher, who finished with 20 points and six rebounds in just 22 minutes of playing time.
To their credit, the Panthers refused to back down an inch at any point throughout the game and managed to bring the deficit down to 19 when New England Small College Athletic Conference scoring leader Tracy Borsinger, who led the Panthers with 13 points on the day, bridged the two halves with a nice running lay-in and a pair of free throws.
But the Ephs matched their intensity level and quickly sealed the outcome with a 7-0 run punctuated by a great transition connection between Cook and Rainer, who finished with 11 points, which made it 43-17 with 16:50 to go in the contest.
From there, the two teams played relatively even basketball and matched each other on points for the remainder of the game, paving the way for the Ephs to claim victory over the Panthers for the 10th time in the two sides previous eleven meetings.
The Ephs will now attempt to stay on track when they head east to play their final non-conference game of the regular season against Smith on Monday evening, while the Panthers are off until next Friday, when they will travel north to take on NESCAC foe Bowdoin. Tip-off times are 7 and 8 p.m., respectively.