WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Early in the second half of Saturday's New England Small College Athletic Conference quarterfinal, Williams' Ellen Cook pulled up from behind the top of the key and tossed up a 3-point attempt that was just a shade too long and clanged off the back of the rim.
For a long instant, the ball hung in the air above the hoop, as though suspended by some unseen string. Then it dipped cleanly through the netting.
It was just that kind of afternoon for the Ephs (21-4, 9-1), who turned in another all-around effort to defeat Little Three rival Wesleyan University (11-11, 4-6) at Chandler Gym, 72-43. The victory, the Ephs' third of the season over the Cardinals and fifth straight overall, was the 400th of Eph coach Pat Manning's career, making her the first Williams basketball coach (men or women) to reach that lofty plateau. Yet in her typical style, Manning did her best to shift the focus onto her squad's overall performance.
"The most important thing is that we advanced. That's number one," said Manning. "I'm not big on milestones and stuff like that. What I like about it is that it's with this group because this team is so special to me. I'm thrilled that a milestone win like that was with them. It means the world to me."
In the first half, the Ephs turned in one of their best 20-minute performances of the season as they limited the Cardinals to a scant 10 points while shooting a devastating 78 percent (7-9) from behind the three-point line. Initially, both teams had trouble getting on the board, and nearly a minute and a half had elapsed before Danny Rainer found Claire Baecher open for three on outlet pass, moments after Baecher had come up with a clean block on Kendra Harris, the first of six the Ephs would record in the half. Just over a minute later, Baecher contented herself with merely starting the play as she corralled a Jess Cherenza miss and flung a stretch pass to Kellie Macdonald, who quickly worked her way inside for a 5-0 Ephs lead.
The Cardinals, however, answered back immediately with a jumper from Cherenza, then pulled to within one with just over five minutes elapsed when Jackie Browne (the younger sister of Eph senior guard Stephanie Browne) fell down and lost her dribble but recovered well and dished to Chekira Lashley, who banked in a mid-range jumper to make it 5-4 Williams. With 14:55, the game had all the makings of a tight, gritty defensive struggle.
Then the Ephs found their range.
Cook began the barrage immediately after Lashley's jumper with a 3-pointer near the top of the key. That was followed, in short order, by a nice Baecher spin for a layup, a long 3-pointer from Rehnquist and another trey from Baecher off a feed from Cook in transition, giving the Ephs a 16-6 lead with 10:26 to go and prompting Wesleyan coach Kate Mullen to burn a 30-second timeout, though it appeared to have little effect on the Ephs' shooting.
Indeed, things went so well for the Ephs that even broken possessions became points. With about nine minutes left in the half, Cook slipped and fell early in an Eph trip up the court, she calmly responded with an emergency outlet to Jennie Harding, then got it back and fed Kellie Macdonald for a well-placed floater from underneath the basket. Less than a minute later, Macdonald pulled in a lob from Rehnquist and went up for the layup, where the ball was met in mid-jump by a Wesleyan defender for what looked to be an easy block. But Macdonald maintained her composure, never let go of the ball and finished to make it 23-8.
As the clock dipped under two minutes to go, the Ephs salvaged another seemingly lost play when Mary-Kate O'Brien stumbled but still managed to feed Rehnquist, who hastily knocked down her third three of the half just a few feet away from the home bleachers to push the Eph lead out to 26. By that point, the Ephs had held the Cardinals without a field goal for over 10 minutes, a stretch that finally ended when Amber Wessells grabbed her own rebound off a driving layup attempt to make it 34-10.
While the Cardinals came out of the locker room to begin the second half with a renewed vigor and made two of their first four shots, the Ephs replied with a 15-0 run that left them with 37-point cushion and essentially salted away the contest with well over half the period still to play. Once again, Baecher led the carousel of Eph scorers in notching six of her game-high 26 points during the run, including an unguarded layup and a three-pointer that bounced in after getting a generous roll off the rim, moments after Cook's equally auspicious three had made it 44-14.
With the game seemingly out of reach and over three-quarters of the half still to play, the determined Cardinals refused to quit and launched a 12-0 run punctuated by a pair of threes from Kelly-Ann Rooney, who led the Cardinals with 14 points. That run prompted a slightly concerned Manning to put her starters back into the game, though the Eph advantage never dipped lower than 22 points and hovered around 30 as the final minutes ticked off and eventually gave way to a brief on-court ceremony commemorating Manning's milestone win.
The Ephs now turn their gaze eastward to Amherst, which will host the semifinals and finals of the NESCAC tournament next week. First up for the Ephs, however, will be Middlebury, who earned a 75-64 victory over Bates earlier today. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., immediately after the first semifinal between Amherst and Bowdoin.