Women's basketball team looks to grow from challenging season

by Boyd Bragg | 4/7/20 2:00am

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After opening up Ivy League play strong with an exciting win against Harvard, Dartmouth faced an extended dry spell.

by Lorraine Liu / The Dartmouth

Dartmouth started the 2019-2020 season projected to finish sixth in the Ivy League standings, and it ended there too.

The Big Green remained battle-tested throughout the season by playing top level teams on a near-weekly basis. Women’s basketball head coach Belle Koclanes said that in comparison to its Ivy League foes, the team faced the most challenging schedule, including a road game in December against Big Ten champion Northwestern University. The team’s 10-17 record is its worst since the 2016-2017 season, in part due to the unusually difficult non-conference schedule.

Koclanes and director of basketball operations Michael Motta had strategically planned for the team’s conference games.

One tradition of the program is to bring players back to their hometowns to compete against the teams they grew up watching. Koclanes and Motta considered this tradition, as well as the opportunity to play Power Five opponents, when scheduling non-conference games.

The Big Green faced the additional challenge of replacing top-scoring players after losing four seniors from the Class of 2019. It was going to be a tall task to replicate the likes of Isalys Quinones ’19, who recently helped Puerto Rico qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.

The Big Green looked to its seniors this season to step up and carry the team. The transition in leadership went smoothly in the early stages of its season. 

“They introduced to the team, from day one, the four pillars of authenticity, trust, communication and accountability,” Koclanes said.

The Big Green opened up its season with a tremendous offensive performance at home, scoring 72 points in a win over the University of Vermont. In that game, Dartmouth relied on distributing the ball and creating opportunities for multiple players to score. 

The opening victory against Vermont sparked a three-game winning streak to start the season, and the Big Green hoped to carry this energy into a tough road stretch. After coming off a one-point, nail-biting win over Fairfield University, the team faced tough losses against the Manhattan College Lady Jaspers, Loyola University Chicago Ramblers and Northwestern Wildcats. The Big Green struggled to find any offensive rhythm in that road trip, as it shot an average of 31.1 percent from the field in the three losses.

After returning from this difficult road stretch, Dartmouth was able to find itself back on the win column after earning three victories out of its next four games.

Once again, the Big Green faced a similar challenge: a taxing three-game road trip. This time, the games were a tune-up to the start of the Ivy League season. Dartmouth faced Boston University on Dec. 21, then returned to action on Dec. 29 at the University at Buffalo. These games resulted in, respectively, 18 and 24-point losses. On New Year’s Eve, the Big Green ended the calendar year at Loyola University Maryland with its third consecutive loss.

Although the team’s non-conference record felt discouraging, Koclanes and her players acknowledged that they could use this experience for improvement. 

“We had to make adjustments early on that would prepare us for Ivy League play,” Katie Douglas ’22 said. “Some of the best teams we play all year are in our own conference, so we have to use the non-conference schedule to prepare for them.”

With the new year came the beginning of Ivy League basketball. On Jan. 11, Harvard University traveled to Hanover to take on a tested Dartmouth squad. The point differential rarely exceeded single digits and remained neck and neck throughout the contest. With 13 seconds remaining, the Big Green made an excellent steal at halfcourt that led Annie McKenna ’20 to put the team up one point with an open layup. The thrilling win put much-needed wind into the team’s sails.

The Big Green could not find a consistent rhythm throughout the remainder of conference play. After the first victory against Harvard, Dartmouth only won three of its final 13 games. Dartmouth was largely outsized in the post for the majority of the season, resulting in teams out-rebounding the Big Green by an average margin of 4.0 rebounds. The team showed flashes of offensive rhythm, especially in its first half at the Princeton University Tigers, but could never dial in the consistency of it. A rigorous non-conference schedule and highly competitive Ivy League opponents proved difficult for the team.

Dartmouth often started games slow, which forced the team to show grit later in the game to close the gaps it often found itself facing.

“This team fights, but it’s fighting for 40 [minutes] and being able to put the ball in the basket,” Koclanes said.

Douglas, who received this year’s “GO” award, acknowledged the team’s flaw of starting off slow, adding that she turned to her seniors for guidance. 

“Some of the things the seniors and coaches would say is to bring a fire when we play and to throw the first punch instead of waiting to be punched,” Douglas said. 

McKenna was named the Gail Koziara ’82 Most Valuable Player, and Kaiyah Corona ’23 and Emma Koch ’23 received the Don Goss Spirit Award. Additionally, McKenna earned a spot on the College Sports Information Directors of America Academic All District 1 Team.

Since Dartmouth moved to virtual instruction for the spring term, the team has transitioned to online weekly meetings, workouts and drills. Douglas said that the Big Green is providing individual workouts that include lifting and basketball according to NCAA regulations.

Although Dartmouth will graduate a talented group of players, they will welcome four new players from the Class of 2024 to their roster. Both Corona and Koch, who suffered season-ending injuries in the preseason, will be returning next season as well.