WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass.—With 5.6 seconds left on the clock and her team ahead by one, Williams coach Pat Manning was on pins and needles. Her Ephs were ahead by one point and defending against an inbounds play. As players swarmed around the foul line, Manning looked on in horror as Ellen Cook slipped and fell just before the ball was put in play. "I was like, No! No!" recalled Manning.
She never should have worried. Amanni Fernandez wrestled the pass away from Connecticut College's Mairead Hynes and dished to Katie Litman. Litman passed to Cook, and in a flash, the Ephs had scored a a 45-44 over the Camels in Saturday's NESCAC quarterfinal at Chandler Gym. With the win—their second over the Camels in eight days—the Ephs earned a date in the semifinals with No. 5 Tufts, who beat the Ephs by four points earlier this month.
The win was perhaps the Ephs' gutsiest of the season. Williams trailed by 10 after a nightmarish first half and got just two points combined from co-captains Cook and Kellie Macdonald. But the Ephs persevered, spurred on by their frontcourt: Katie Litman led Williams with 10 points in 18 minutes, while Oge Uwanaka turned in her finest all-around performance of the season, registering eight points, six rebounds, four assists, four steals and three blocks. "We have depth on our team and we know that," said Manning. "Oge and Katie were tremendous. They really got us going."
Devon Caveney scored what proved to be the game winning basket for the Ephs. The sophomore guard dribbled into traffic, spun and split a pair of defenders to make a layup and give Williams a 45-41 lead. Not to be outdone, the Camels' Carlee Smith drained a three from in front of her own bench with 2:13 to go, narrowing the gap to one. Conn coach Brian Wilson called timeout to settle his team, and prepare them for a furious final two minutes.
Improbably—and yet utterly appropriately, given the defensive play that characterized the game's first 38 minutes—neither team scored the rest of the way. A three-pointer from Caveney rattled in and out; Hynes had her shot blocked by Uwanaka. The stakes got higher: with 20 seconds left, the Camels' Willa McKinley stole the ball and drove up the court, only to have her layup attempt blocked by Cook, who was then fouled. But Cook missed the first free throw of a one-and-one set, and a rebound by Smith gave the Camels the ball with 5.6 seconds left.
Wilson called timeout. Then Manning called timeout. Then Fernandez won the ball, and the Ephs poured onto the court to celebrate.
The finish was as thrilling as it was sudden. It also represented a dramatic turnaround from the first half, in which the Camels methodically built up a double-digit lead that grew as large as 12 points. Hynes, who earned her third straight double-double, carried Conn throughout the period, scoring 12 points and consistently bowling over Eph defenders in the paint.
Hynes' effect on the Williams post game was apparent, as the Ephs began settling for longer-range shots, none of which fell for them. Williams was 0-6 from three-point range in the half, and during one eight-and-a-half minute stretch made just two baskets, both mid-range jumpers from Kristin Fechtelkotter.
Meanwhile, Willa McKinley—on her way to a 14-point game, her highest total in over a month—made a pair of three-pointers late in the period, putting the Camels ahead 30-20 heading into the break. "We just felt like we didn't really play together," said Manning of the Ephs' slow start. "We were panicked to start the game and didn't run any of our stuff."
But nothing went right for Conn for most of the second half, as the Ephs held the visitors to an astonishing six points in the first 14:46 of the period, turning a 10-point deficit into a seven-point advantage.
Much of the Ephs' success in the period was due to Uwanaka. At times, the junior forward appeared to be single-handedly willing her team to victory. With the score 31-24, she backed Hynes off the ball and drained a hook shot, blocked a shot from Hynes, kicked a pass out to Caveney for the Ephs' first three-pointer, stole the ball from Hynes and dished to Lauren McCall for another quick bucket. The game was tied 31-31; Uwanaka had almost literally done it all.
Soon, Williams had a 43-36 lead. Yet just when the Ephs, who tied a season-high with 11 steals, appeared set to shut down the Camels for the rest of the game, McKinley banked in a 23-footer with the shot clock winding down. The Eph lead was back to four, and the stage was set for a taut finish that had the crowd on its feet for the final two minutes.
The Camels finish their season at 16-9 (6-4 NESCAC), while the Ephs improved to 20-5 (7-3 NESCAC) for their third straight 20-win season. They'll go for their 21st win in Medord next Saturday. "Survive and advance," said Manning. "That's what it's all about."