Women’s basketball picks up pair of Ivy League wins

by Alexander Agadjanian | 3/1/15 6:01pm

For all of the peaks and valleys the women’s basketball team has endured this season, this past weekend’s games carried extra meaning. Not only was it a chance to properly send off the senior class in its final two home games and get back to the .500 win percentage mark for the year, but it also provided an opportunity for a step in a positive direction in the program’s second year under head coach Belle Koclanes. In unequivocally dominant fashion, the Big Green did just that, trouncing Columbia University 60-50 on Friday night and Cornell University 54-35 less than 24 hours later.

“I’m so proud of the team’s effort this weekend,” Koclanes said. “I’m so proud of our seniors [for] really leading and building pride, building legacy, protecting our home court. [That is] something that we talk about all the time and it’s really important to us, and they led the way.”

On Friday against Columbia, the visitors grabbed control early on. Capitalizing on the Big Green’s shaky inside defense, the Lions pounded the restricted area to score four points in the paint and notched a 4-3 lead.

Yet, Dartmouth responded accordingly with early adjustments. The Big Green closed off lanes to the hoop and forced its opponent out to the perimeter, heavily disrupting the Lion’s offense. As a result, Columbia went scoreless for nearly five minutes after its strong start, missing four field goals and committing two turnovers in that span.

“We locked up on defending penetration [into the paint] better,” Koclanes noted. “We made adjustments on some of their simple ball screens, [and] they didn’t [succeed on] them again. We make adjustments throughout the game, but protecting our paint is really important on the defensive end.”

On the other end of the floor, greater ball movement and incisive passing fostered a 7-0 run in less than three minutes for the Big Green. By the midway point in the first half, the Big Green had accumulated a 17-9 lead. Fanni Szabo ’17, the team’s leading scorer, developed a nice shooting touch to help build her team’s early dominance, netting eight points within the first nine minutes of play.

“I had some open shots, and luckily I made them,” Szabo remarked. “My team was great at giving me the ball at the right time, so that helped me score those points [early on].”

The Big Green maintained a lead of at least six points for the rest of the half, as Dartmouth stifled Columbia to 25 percent shooting in the first period and maintained a 28-18 edge at halftime. While Szabo led all scorers on the court going into the locker room, the emergence of Kate Letkewicz ’18 provided a nice boost as well.

A relatively quiet offensive player before the match — averaging 2.5 points per game this season — Letkewicz displayed more assertiveness in attacking the basket than in the past, notching six points in the first half and finishing with nine for the evening. The guard has seen a 6.8 minute per game increase in Ivy League contests over non-conference games, and her recent play has heralded yet another promising development among the team’s freshmen contingent.

Over the course of the second half, the game followed a similar pattern. The Lions made several pushes to reduce their deficit, only to be met each time by the Big Green with its own offensive spurts.

Columbia freshman Camille Zimmerman was at the forefront of her team’s comeback attempts in the second half, scoring seven points in just over four minutes. Dartmouth responded swiftly, led by six points from Tia Dawson ’15 in the first nine minutes of the second period.

The senior center, playing in the last homestand of her Dartmouth career, proved once again how vital she is to the team’s success on both ends of the floor. Dawson eventually completed her second consecutive double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds and — along with her two recorded blocks — represented her overpowering presence in the paint both on offense and defense.

For much of the second half, the Big Green preserved a comfortable lead that hovered around 10 points, but the team began to suffer from a jump in turnovers and an offensive lull down the stretch. At 9:46, Dartmouth was up 43-31 over Columbia, but failed to score another point for almost five minutes. In this time, Columbia slowly cut into Dartmouth’s lead, bringing the score to 43-37 at 6:45.

Yet Dartmouth replied as forcefully as ever, generating five points — two buckets in the paint and a trip to the free throw line — in a 40-second span to bring its lead back to 11 points.

The rest of the contest remained a back-and-forth affair. Though the Lions again trimmed their deficit to as close as six points, the Big Green closed out the game with authority, sharpening its field goal and free throw shooting in the game’s waning moments to prevail 60-50.

The victory snapped a five-game home losing streak for the Big Green and marked its first Ivy League win of the season in Leede Arena. With the win over Columbia, Dartmouth attained its first season series sweep of an Ivy League competitor since it swept Columbia three years ago.

Szabo played an integral role in her team’s win, spearheading Dartmouth’s offensive effort with a 19-point performance. The guard also posted a significantly more efficient shooting night, rising from an average .340 field goal percentage in conference games to a .444 shooting percentage on the night.

“You got to give [Szabo] credit,” Koclanes said. “She works so hard, and she sees all different types of physicality, face-guarding, defense — people try to keep the ball out of her hands. And she’s getting so much better at changing her speeds, being stronger on her catches and not getting disrupted and frustrated by the physicality, but being more composed.”

Containing Columbia’s top scorer, sophomore Tori Oliver who averages 16.8 points per game this season, was of utmost importance for the Big Green heading into Friday’s game. Milica Toskovic ’15 suppressed Oliver as well as any defender this season, limiting the opposing forward to 2-13 shooting for only nine points.

The following day brought the celebration of senior night, as the Big Green’s three senior players — Dawson, Toskovic and Nicole Beresford ’15 — played the last game of their careers in Leede Arena. The task at hand loomed before the team — Dartmouth, who entered the weekend tied for last in the Ivy League, was preparing to face off against the third-best Ivy League squad in Cornell, who handed Dartmouth a 66-46 defeat earlier this season.

In a complete effort across the board, the Big Green ensured the visitors would not spoil the seniors’ special night, notching an upset victory along the way.

“It was just a total team effort tonight,” Koclanes said. “And they were playing for their seniors. That’s what we talked about, that’s what we want in our program. You earn that for four years... [The seniors] worked so hard, and they deserved that type of a victory.”

After conceding the first basket of the game on an easy layup in the paint, Dartmouth rode a string of jumpers to an early three-point lead at 16:09. Once again, Szabo played a prominent role in her team’s early offense, scoring five of the first seven points. While the final result was still far out of view, the Big Green would ultimately maintain a lead over Cornell for the rest of the game.

It’s one thing to jump out to an early edge over a formidable opponent, but a completely different thing to preserve and possibly extend such an advantage. Fortunately for the Big Green, its sharpshooters caught fire from deep.

Six minutes into the first, Lakin Roland ’16 drained two three-pointers in a span of less than 40 seconds, and found herself wide open for another two minutes later, extending the Big Green’s lead to 18-8.

In the last five minutes of the first half, unheralded sophomore Katie Vareika ’17 — who finished the game with nine points — poured in two more three-balls. Dartmouth converted six three pointers on 10 attempts in the first half, which proved critical in maintaining its lead.

As flashy and crowd-rousing as the team’s three-point barrage was, Dartmouth’s defensive display was equally exceptional. After allowing an early bucket in the paint, the Big Green entered a defensive lockdown that suffocated Cornell’s offense.

Content with letting Big Red players pass among themselves out on the perimeter, the Big Green defense clogged lanes into the paint and forced Cornell to settle for jump shots. Most remarkably, the women held Cornell scoreless for more than eight minutes in the first period.

While the Big Red managed to cut the halftime score to 28-19, the effect of Dartmouth’s defense was palpable. The Big Green restricted an offense, which previously averaged 29.54 points in the first half this season, to only 19 on Saturday.

The visitors began the next period of play much more strongly. Six points by Cornell’s leading scorer Nia Marshall keyed a 12-5 start for Cornell, trimming the lead to 35-31 at 14:34.

The Big Green responded emphatically, inflicting yet another game-altering drought upon Cornell, this one even longer than the first. Seeing its once comfortable lead drop to four, Dartmouth reclaimed its impenetrable defensive character and sent the Big Red offense into disarray.

Failing to find any space near the hoop and instead resorting to several long, mid-range jumpers — the most difficult type of shot in the sport — Cornell did not score for 11 minutes after its three pointer at 14:34.

“We played zone defense, so that was a game adjustment the second time around [against Cornell,]” Koclanes said. “We [also] focused on protecting our paint, so that was a major emphasis the second time, and we did a nice job of that.”

The defensive stranglehold in turn spawned a lengthy scoring run, as Dartmouth managed a 15-0 during this time frame to effectively seal the 54-35 victory. The Big Green finished the game on a 19-4 run, and its two top scorers — Szabo and Roland — fulfilled closeout duties admirably, combining for 13 points in the last 10 minutes of the game. The two were also the top scorers on the floor for the entire contest, as Roland reached 17 points and Szabo added 16. The Big Green limited Cornell to .269 shooting from the field on the night, a huge plunge from the Big Red’s .40 field goal percentage average on the season.

The win shines even brighter when considering the Big Green’s last game against the same opponent earlier in the month. While the Big Red gained 30 points in the paint playing in Ithaca on Feb. 13, Dartmouth held Cornell’s post-scoring to just 12 in Hanover on Feb. 28.

“I’m really excited we got the [weekend] sweep, but I just started tearing up at the end,” Dawson said after her final home game. “It was happy tears, but it’s also just knowing that I’m not going to play on this floor again. It’s hard but amazing at the same time.”