NORTHAMPTON, Mass. — Sixteen missed 3-pointers. A season-high 24 turnovers. A raucous Ainsworth Gym crowd.
Despite all of these detriments, the Williams women's basketball team almost pulled out its unlikeliest win of the season.
In the end, though, the Williams comeback fell just short as the Ephs fell to the Pioneers via a gritty 53-49 technical knockout. The loss was the second in three games for the No. 25 Ephs, who fell to 16-4 (4-1 NESCAC) on what has been a mostly charmed season thus far. The Pioneers (17-2, 11-1 NEWMAC), meanwhile, ran their winning streak to five games while defeating Williams for the first time since 1986.
When it was all over, a glum Pat Manning was in no mood to sugarcoat her team's performance.
"Bad day," said the Williams coach. "Awful."
It was a nightmarish first half for the Ephs and they were lucky to be trailing by only 11 once it ended. The half began auspiciously when Kellie Macdonald opened the scoring with a pair of close-in layups off a loose ball and a nicely-timed pass from Claire Baecher combined with a put-back of her own rebound. From that moment on, however, the Pioneers began to dominate and reeled off a 13-0 run that put them firmly in control of the period. Rosa Drummond got her side on the board with a baseline fadeaway jumper, Devon Quattrocchi tied things up with a jumper just six seconds later following a Jennie Harding turnover on the inbounds pass.
The Pioneers then quickly jumped ahead as the Eph offense sputtered under the tremendous pressure exerted by Smith's oft-employed full-court press. Rosa Drummond ignited the crowd with the game's first 3-pointer thanks to a clever kickout from Paulina Solis to make the score 11-4; moments later, Solis stole the ball cleanly from a double-teamed Jennie Harding near half court and dribbled straight to the basket to cap her side's run and force Manning to call a 30-second timeout just five minutes into the contest.
While the Ephs momentarily nailed the deficit back to five coming out of the timeout on layups from Baecher and Ellen Cook, the Pioneers nullified the mini-comeback with an 8-2 run that featured a turnaround jumper from Drummond, who led all scorers with 21 points, and back-to-back lengthy threes from Solis (sandwiched around a layup from Baecher via a nifty feed from Katie Litman) to push the score out to 21-10.
After Drummond drained a pull-up jumper with 9:56 to go, the Ephs found themselves down by 15 thanks to a series of discombobulated offensive possessions in which they failed to get a clean shot off. However, another timeout by Manning appeared to have a positive effect on the Ephs, who got the gap down to 10 when MaryKate O'Brien did well to collect an offensive rebound and fire outside to Jen Borderud, who dished in turn to Baecher for a jump shot from just inside 3-point range to make it 29-19.
The half ended moments later with the Pioneers ahead by a 32-21 count, thanks in large part to a shocking collective 0-for-10 for all Williams 3-point shooters.
Once the buzzer sounded to begin the second half, though, the Ephs appeared to have gained new life in the locker room and raced out on a 9-0 run, buoyed in part by a Smith scoring drought that saw the Pioneers miss their first 11 field-goal attempts.
Danny Rainer got things started when she made an incisive pass to Baecher down low and then finished the play after Baecher missed the initial layup. Baecher, who led the Ephs with 14 points, then took matters into her own hands with a soaring mid-range jumper on which she delayed her release until she was on her way down, then got a favorable roll off the rim to trim the deficit to 32-25.
It was Harding who provided the biggest blow, however, when she took advantage of a momentary defensive lapse by the Pioneers and drained an unguarded 3-pointer to whittle the margin to four and prompt Smith coach Lynn Hersey to burn a timeout of her own with 14:25 to go in the contest.
Though the Ephs had managed to get themselves back in the game, they had tremendous difficulty pulling themselves all the way up to sea level, even after a Baecher bank off the glass brought them within a single possession, especially after Solis, who had sat down early in the half with three fouls, came back into the game.
Even as the run of play temporarily shifted in Smith's direction, particularly after Solis found Amanda Zakoske in the lane for a 40-34 lead with 8:54 to go, the Pioneers could not pull away, thanks in no small part to a big defensive contribution from Oge Uwanaka, who grabbed four rebounds and two steals in just 11 minutes, off the bench.
A brief hot streak from Cook, who knocked down a 3-pointer in transition and earned a layup with a drive straight up the lane, suddenly brought the Ephs within one once more with 7:43 to go. Once again, however, the Ephs failed to capitalize and continued to play catch-up.
The long-awaited equalizer finally came via a Cook 3-pointer from near the corner that tied the game at 46-all with 3:47 left; 36 seconds later, Baecher gave the Ephs a one-point advantage when she made the first of two free throws.
The ensuing two minutes of tense play yielded a myriad of missed shots and only two made free throws for each team, leaving the Ephs up 49-48 with exactly a minute left following Rainer's pair of makes.
On their next trip up the court, however, the Pioneers earned what would prove to be the decisive margin when Quattrocchi drew the Eph defense a shade to close to her and then dished to Drummond, who sank a 24-footer to put the Pioneers up by two and send the already-standing crowd into hysterics with just 47 ticks left on the clock.
Even after Baecher lost possession when she fumbled a drive 21 seconds later, it still was not quite over for the Ephs. Quattrocchi missed the first of a one-and-one set of free throws, but recovered heroically by poking the ball out of Uwanaka's hands and drawing another foul. This time, Quattrocchi made the first shot and missed the second, leaving the Ephs with one last chance to sink a tying three. That chance disappeared, however, when Cook clanged a desperation heave from the corner hard off the rim, finally tipping the scales definitively in the Pioneers' favor.
The Ephs will look to rebound when they travel to Colby Friday to take on the White Mules. Tip-off will be at 8 p.m.