Strange things happen when you’re very high up. You lose perspective. Things get a little blurry. Vertigo sets in. And if this past week of women’s basketball has been one thing, it has been vertiginous.
After walking all over Middlebury in Saturday’s semifinal, the Polar Bears suffered their first loss of the season, falling to third-ranked Tufts, 69–75, in the finals of the NESCAC tournament on Sunday. It was the second year in a row that the Jumbos knocked the Polar Bears out of the tournament.
It was a bizarre spectacle to watch. Bowdoin, usually so collected and efficient, was positively out of sorts. The game plan, Head Coach Adrienne Shibles revealed after the game, had been simple: keep Tufts from scoring in the paint, and shut down the Jumbos’ leading scorer, junior forward Erica DeCandido.
But the game did not go according to plan. Tufts outscored the Polar Bears in the paint 34-24, and DeCandido scored 17 points and dished out five assists. Senior guard Jac Knapp added 25 points for good measure.
“We looked frazzled,” said guard Hannah Graham ’19 after the game. Frazzled indeed. Tufts was tough, but Bowdoin was their own worst enemy.
The team coughed up 21 turnovers, tying its season high, which it set in its first conference game of the season against Bates on January 4. You can give the ball away 21 times in your first conference game against a middling team and still win. Not so much in the conference finals.
After trailing for most of the first half, Bowdoin drew within one point of the Jumbos by the end of the third quarter, 51–52, despite having two starters, Abby Kelly ’19 and Graham, in foul trouble. In typical fashion, the team seemed to be finishing strong. It wouldn’t have been the first time that they would have managed to overcome a slow start to claim victory in the fourth quarter.
But they never found their groove. They quite literally threw away the ball at a couple of crucial moments. They surrendered critical offensive rebounds. They were on the wrong end of a couple of, to put it mildly, questionable calls by the official, but they also failed to execute routine, yet vital, plays down the stretch.
Maybe it was nerves. With Bowdoin in its first NESCAC final since 2015, no member of the team had ever played in a conference final game—although you would think that, after last year’s trip to the Division III NCAA championship game, nerves wouldn’t really be much of a problem. Maybe Morrell was too loud. (I doubt it.) Maybe Tufts, who upset second-ranked Amherst in a positively thrilling last-second victory the day before, was just jacked up on adrenaline.
In the end, however, Shibles said it best.
“This opportunity really meant a lot to us. We all wanted to really do it for the seniors, especially. But I don’t think we handled ourselves with poise today,” said Shibles. “They allowed heart to take over where the head should be.”
It is certainly a glitch in the whole cosmic meritocracy that this class of seniors—Kelly, Graham, Taylor Choate and Cordelia Stewart—will graduate without a NESCAC title to their name. With these four on the team, the Polar Bears accrued a stupidly good record of 98-16 and made their first trip to the Division III NCAA championship game in program history. With 1,162 points, Kelly is currently Bowdoin’s seventh all-time leading scorer. She currently trails the sixth-place spot by 18 points.
In the end, though, the loss was more a symbolic blow than a tactical one. On Tuesday, Bowdoin secured an at-large berth to the Division III NCAA tournament and will face off against Hunter College (18-9) at home tonight. Although the NCAA does not disclose overall seeds, it appears from its first-round opponent and placement in the bracket that Bowdoin is a top-four seed. If that is the case, and assuming it wins its first two games, Bowdoin would also be at home for its Sweet Sixteen and quarterfinal games.
Nor did it do much to tarnish the Polar Bears’ prestige. On Wednesday, the league announced its annual All-NESCAC team, with the Polar Bears represented handsomely. Kelly won Player of the Year honors and was named to the first team along with Maddie Hasson ’20. Choate was named Defensive Player of the Year, earning a spot on the second team. Finally, Shibles was named Coach of the Year for the second time in her career on the heels of becoming the winningest coach in Bowdoin women’s basketball history with a record of 249-64.
If nothing else, the loss was a timely reminder that things can get a little funky at the top. After all, it’s a dangerous place to be. Heading into the NCAA tournament, the Polar Bears aren’t NESCAC champions, but they’re where they should be: back on earth, with two feet firmly planted on the ground.