NORTON, Mass. - March 2, 2008 - Despite a great effort from visiting Springfield College, the Wheaton College women's basketball team captured its first New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference (NEWMAC) Tournament championship in the league's 10-year history and will make a return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 13 years, as the top-seeded Lyons downed third-seed Springfield, 74-69, in Sunday's title game at Wheaton College's Emerson Gymnasium.
Wheaton, which is now unbeaten in 13 conference tournament home games, claimed its first league tourney title since winning the New England Women's 8 Conference (NEW 8) in 1995. Today's championship marked the Lyons' fifth dating back to 1987. Posting the program's third-highest season win total of 22 with today's victory while improving to 22-6 with its seventh straight win, Wheaton awaits tomorrow morning's NCAA Tournament pairings.
Springfield, meanwhile, finished its year at 16-11. It is not expected to seek an ECAC Tournament bid. Today's appearance was Springfield's 7th appearance in a NEWMAC Tourney Championship game in the last eight years. SC has won five of those seven games.
A balanced scoring attack led the Lyons to victory, as five double-figure scorers combined for 66 of Wheaton's 74 points. Juniors Krystin Hickey and Bri Smith accounted for 15 points apiece, while senior Becky Aitchison chipped in with 13. Sophomore Ida Kruse (Vershire, VT/Rivendell Academy) recorded 12 points and classmate Andrea Bailey added 11.
For Springfield, junior Lauren O'Connor (Valhalla, N.Y.) posted 16 points and a game-high 15 rebounds, while senior Tara McCarthy (Bristol, R.I.) dumped in 18 points. Senior Christine Cotter (Stoughton, Mass.) and freshman Rachelle Walker (Lee, Mass.) had eight points each.
Springfield, which has won five NEWMAC Tournament crowns, led for the better part of a game that featured 12 lead swings and 10 ties. The 10th tie came at 62-all with 4:06 to play, as the hosts were in the midst of an 8-0 run to overcome a 62-58 deficit and take the lead for good. Bailey scored four straight points to tie things up before a Hickey lay-up at 3:17 gave Wheaton a 64-62 edge. The Pride got as close as one on two occasions, with the latter coming with 1:50 left on a 16-footer by freshman Meaghan Macarthur (Baiting Hollow, N.Y.). But a huge conventional three-point play from Hickey with 53.4 ticks remaining put the Lyons back in front by four. That was the play of the game. Steals and free throws by Bailey and Aitchison on ensuing possessions in the final 37.1 sealed the win. Wheaton never led by more than four until there were 36 seconds left. The Lyons eventually led by as many as seven (74-67) with 27 seconds left. Two free throws by SC's Cotter closed the scoring with 18 seconds left.
The Pride came out of the second-half gate with an offensive flurry, making six of its first nine shots, and led 48-43 at 13:32. The Lyons slowly chipped away at their deficit, eventually forcing the contest's eighth tie with 9:18 to go. Two lead changes and a pair of ties transpired before Wheaton went in front for good at 3:17. To open the first half, Springfield hit five of its initial six shots to lead 15-7 with 14:35 to go. Wheaton answered with eight straight points during a 2:27 run to knot the score at 15, with Kruse hitting four free throws during that span. During the final 13:17 of the frame, neither team led by more than four points, as the Lyons and Pride played to nine lead changes and six ties in the stanza. Springfield held a 35-33 edge at the intermission. The hosts made 42.9 percent of their first-half shots, while the Pride shot 48.3 percent, hitting just nine of its final 23 field goal attempts.
Sophomore Jenny Champney was nearly Wheaton's sixth double-digit scorer with eight points to go alongside a team-high nine rebounds. Bailey and Hickey handed out six and five assists, respectively, while Aitchison and Bailey each had three steals. Kruse finished with six rebounds.
Walker led Springfield with a game-best nine assists, Cotter and McCarthy had three steals apiece, and freshmen Abby Connors (Douglas, Mass.) and Macarthur had seven points each. For the second straight game, starting junior forward Corey Finch (Hanover, Pa.) did not play due to a mild concussion.
As for the seniors, Tara McCarthy ends her career with 1,381 points and in fourth place among SC's all-time leading scorers, just 3 points shy of third. Christine Cotter ended with 1,047 points and in 9th place all-time. just 10 points shy of eighth.
If she can remain healthy, junior Lauren O'Connor will be attempting to become a 1000-point, 1,000 rebound performer next season. She currently has 877 career points and 742 career rebounds after three seasons. Including today's results, O'Connor established a Springfield single-season record for field goal percentage (.595). She made 122 shots in 205 attempts from the field. Her percentage breaks the old Springfield single-season record of .561 set by Patty Larkin 20 years ago in 1988.
Head Coach Naomi Graves concludes her 23rd overall season (six at WPI, 17 at Springfield) with an overall record of 331-274 (.547). At Springfield alone, her 17-year mark now stands at 263-191 (.579).