Textbook. Flawless. Ideal. Unrivaled. Masterly. Exemplary. Superlative. Pick your adjective. But one descriptor will attach itself to Bowdoin women’s basketball regular season regardless of what thesaurus you pick up: perfect.
The final weekend of the women’s basketball season was a one-two-punch that dispelled any doubt—if there was any still hanging around—about the Polar Bears’ on-court dominance. On Friday, Adrienne Shibles’ squad clinched the top seed in the NESCAC tournament following their 69–58 victory over Connecticut College (13–10, 4–6 NESCAC), a development that, though surprising to just about nobody, was nevertheless a cause for celebration. On Saturday, the Polar Bears capped off their first undefeated regular season since 2002-03, trouncing Wesleyan (14–10, 4–6 NESCAC) 92–75. 24–0. There you have it.
It was a fittingly dominant end to a positively lights-out season. On their way to perfection, the Polar Bears averaged 84.2 points per game against their opponents’ 52.3 overall, with the margin standing at 76.1 to 58.8 in conference play. Their closest margin of victory—four points—came in a stunning, come-from-behind victory against Middlebury on February 1, while their largest margin of victory, in conference, came one day later when they beat Williams by 37 points. (Out-of-conference, they beat UMaine-Farmington 96–27 on December 4, but propriety dictates that we ignore that one.)
Unless they’re conceited monsters or members of the New England Patriots, really good players on really good teams rarely take credit for their individual accolades, even when that credit is wholly deserved. Take, for example, Taylor Choate ’19, who, after scoring a career-high 27 points against Wesleyan, deflected praise with characteristic deftness.
“It’s a team thing whenever someone scores this many points,” said Choate.
Sometimes—most of the time, even—this is just a lot of reflexive, polite posturing. In Bowdoin’s case, however, it’s just a statistical fact. The Polar Bears have nine players who average at least 10 minutes per game, which, in itself, is not particularly unique in the league. What is unusual, however, is that only one player, Samantha Roy ’20, averages above 25 minutes per game, and only two average above 20.
What all this means is that the Polar Bears substitute a lot and very quickly. If Shibles could have her players hop over the bench directly into the flow of the game every other minute, à la hockey, I suspect that she would.
Shibles’ rapid-fire substitution, combined with an unusually deep roster, proceeds on the expectation that her players will work extraordinarily hard for the short spurts of time for which they’re on the court. Where this sets the Polar Bears apart is in the late quarters of games, when, as their opponents are quickly losing steam, the ferris wheel of energized substitutes just keeps spinning, methodically overwhelming the opponent.
Clearly, this mechanism is working. There is, however, one potential kink in the system: the Polar Bears get off to a slow start. In four of their last five conference games, the Polar Bears have been tied or behind through the first quarter. In two of those games, they trailed until the second half.
Although this propensity for slow beginnings makes for some thrilling comeback wins, it threatens to gunk up the fine-tuned machinery of Shibles’ system. “That’s not the way we operate,” said Shibles after the team allowed 26 points in the third quarter against Wesleyan, noting that it was lackluster defense rather than a lethargic offense that was causing her team to fall behind early in games.
As the team prepares to host Connecticut College this Saturday in the quarterfinals of the NESCAC tournament, Shibles is stressing a return to fundamental defense—getting set, closing off passing lanes—to avoid another early deficit.
After all, Bowdoin had an unusually difficult time with the Camels in their meeting last week. The Camels outscored the Polar Bears in two quarters, the first and the fourth, even while playing without star player and leading scorer, junior guard Sami Ashton, who will be back in the lineup this Saturday.
Yet the team’s most formidable opponent, Shibles said, is complacency.
“I’m glad that we have a good challenge in our quarterfinal game. It’ll push us forward, it’ll push us to get better defensively, which we need,” she said. “You’ve lost your out.”
The players, many of whom are veterans of last year’s postseason heroics, are adjusting accordingly.
“[In] the postseason, everything’s different,” said Choate. “Everyone’s coming at you much harder.” And as the top Division III seed in the nation, everybody means quite literally everybody.
The problem with perfection is that it is fragile. One weak effort, one sloppy quarter, one lapse of focus and whoops—perfection is no more. There is no really solid antonym to “perfect” in the English language—I think we can all agree that “imperfect” is pretty lame—because perfection, as a condition, stands not in opposition to any other state but rather apart from every other state. There is perfection and then there is everything else. A season with one loss is not an “imperfect season” or even a bad season. It’s just a season.
And on Saturday at 2 p.m. in Morrell Gymnasium, it’s all on the line.