What seemed like a pretty comfortable lead Saturday night started to feel a little less secure.
Western Connecticut State University began to put a significant dent in the advantage Bowdoin College had built by halftime. The Polar Bears had watched their lead dwindle to just eight and decided to regroup midway through the second half of a NCAA Division III Second Round game.
“I don’t think we ever had doubts in the game,” said senior forward Caitlin Hynes. “We knew we were going to win. We had the intensity and the fight and the heart. When they were coming back, we just got more mad and wanted to come back.”
Bowdoin responded on the other side of that break with six straight points to shift momentum back in the Polar Bears’ favor. Bowdoin never looked back in a 65-43 win.
After a disappointing exit the last two years in the opening rounds, Bowdoin (22-6) advances to the Sectionals next weekend to play Kean. Regional sites and final pairings will be announced Sunday afternoon. The Polar Bears have won at least one NCAA Tournament game in each of the past nine seasons and have made the tourney 10 straight years.
“Coach had a great speach before the game about having been in this spot before,” said senior forward Leah Rubega. “It’s like the entire season was leading up to this. We wanted it really bad and we were going to go out and play to get every 50-50 ball and every rebound to get to the Sweet 16.”
Hynes, an Owls Head native, led the charge in the second half with 15 of her game-high 17 points. Rubega added 14 points and 12 rebounds. Western Conn (23-6) got 14 from Karli Spera and eight from forward Melissa Teal. It was the lowest point total the Colonials were held to all season and the largest deficit they’ve faced at the half. Bowdoin did a superb job limiting the number of 3-pointers from a team that averaged seven per game. The Polar Bears got an excellent defensive effort by Hynes and Rubega on Teel inside.
“She’s obviously the key to their team,” said Hynes, who had back-to-back blocks on Teel in the second half and finished with four. “If she gets on a roll, they’re going to get on a roll. I knew I couldn’t let her get going.”
Western Conn started to rally with a strong start in the second half. The Colonials found some consistency on the offensive end and began to creep back within reach after being down 31-15 at the half.
The Colonials used a 14-4 run that was aided by a three-point play by Stephanie Slinski and 3-pointer by Katie Moffo. Western Conn had trimmed the deficit down to 37-29 with 15:18 left, forcing Bowdoin to call time.
“We did it for a spurt and we just couldn’t maintain it,” said Western Conn coach Kimberly Rybczyk. “Bowdoin did a great job keeping us out of sync. We had that bug spurt but we couldn’t get it for 20 minutes let alone 40 minutes. “
The Polar Bears responded with six straight points and an 12-2 spurt that opened the lead back again.
“We just needed to be aggressively offensively,” said Bowdoin coach Adrienne Shibles. “We had to take care of the ball and finish our shots and be aggressive. Defensively, I thought we gave them too much space to get off their shots.”
Hynes tossed in an awkward heave from the baseline that turned into a three-point play. Rubega followed that with a 3-pointer from the top of the arc to make it 43-39. After a Colonials basket, Hynes hit twice for a 49-31 lead.
“I was just trying to avoid getting blocked,” said the former Rockland standout of her off-balance shot that sparked the run. “So, I just did everything I could.”
The Colonials struggled from the floor hitting just one shot out of 13 in the first 15-plus minutes of the game. Western Conn also had 13 turnovers and produced eight of its 15 points in the first half from the free throw line.
“I thought it was a combination of both,” said Rybczyk. “Bowdoin played great defense and I thought we were rushing and were tentative and indecisive. We didn’t play together.”
Bowdoin meanwhile got rolling and turned an early lead into a substantial one with a 15-1 run midway through the half. Leading 10-6 with 11:03, the two teams traded free throws. Rubega then scored in the post to start an 11-0 run. After an Ellery Gould 3-pointer, Alexa Barry hit jumper and Rubega followed with a pair of baskets in the paint for a 25-7 lead.
Teel scored in the post with 4:17 left. It was the first Colonials basket since a 3-pointer by Spera 5:39 into the game.
“I’m really happy with the way that we’re playing and with the confidence that we’re playing with,” said Shibles. “I think they just cherish this opportunity and are trying to take advantage of it.”