LEWISTON — The best defense in the NESCAC didn’t play like it all afternoon Saturday, but it was at its best when it needed to be.

Bates College had a shaky start on the defensive end, and some tense moments at the end, but the Bobcats stood their ground for a hard-fought 8-7 victory over Hamilton College at Garcelon Field.

The Bobcats (9-1, 4-1 in NESCAC), ranked 13th in the latest Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosse Coaches Association Division III poll, came into the contest allowing just over five goals per game — tops in the league. But the hosts weren’t on top of their game at the start, allowing three goals in the first 13 minutes to fall behind 3-1.

Head coach Brett Allen called a timeout to settle his squad down against the No. 12 team in the IWLCA poll.

“They had three really easy drives right in the beginning,” Bates senior goalie Hannah Jeffrey said. “I think we just adjusted our mental focus and our communication. It sucks to get three goals scored on you quick, but you got to bounce back, and that’s what we were able to do.”

Bates’ offense pulled the game even, getting goals from Teal Otley and Sydney Howard over the next three minutes to tie the game at 3-3. Howard then score a man-up goal less than a minute after her first tally to give the Bobcats their first lead.

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That lead lasted just 27 seconds before Morgan Fletcher scored for the Continentals (6-3, 2-3) to make it 4-4.

Otley scored a free-position goal to give Bates a 5-4 lead at the half.

That was the lone successful shot from free position for the Bobcats against Hamilton goalie Hannah Burrall in the first half. The freshman netminder denied Drew Barry from free position with 10 seconds left in the half, which proved to be Burrall’s last save of the game.

Out came the freshman and in went junior Hannah Rubin for the Continentals to start the second half. Rubin got a rude welcome from the Bobcats, who scored three goals in the first eight minutes to double-up Hamilton at 8-4.

Hamilton nearly grasped momentum at the beginning of the second half, but a potential man-up goal by Casey File in the first minute was waved off and File was sent off with a yellow card.

Camille Belletete scored with one second left of both teams being a player down to start Bates’ second-half start. Howard and Allison Dewey later added goals 55 seconds apart.

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The Bobcats’ breathing room didn’t last long. Hamilton’s Caroline McCarthy scored a goal and assisted on another less than two minutes apart to cut the deficit to two just over 11 minutes into the half.

Both offenses then went cold, combining for a stretch of 13 minutes without a goal. Jeffrey did her part by stopping a Margaret Gabriel free-position shot with just over seven minutes left.

That was one of three free-position saves Jeffrey made in the second half.

“We’re very fortunate to have her back there,” Allen said of Jeffrey. “She just stabilizes the whole defense. Everybody relaxes, they know that they can trust her and feel like she’s going to come up big in those situations, and she did.”

Jeffrey said she doesn’t know what makes her good against free-position shots, but guessed that trying to stay calm is a big reason why.

Hamilton beat Jeffrey one last time with less than six minutes left to cut the lead to one. Gabriel fed Annie Pooley for the goal.

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What transpired over the final five-plus minutes wasn’t textbook for Bates, but it worked. The Bobcats made defensive stops on a pair of free-position shots, but then followed up the positive plays with negative ones, by turning the ball over.

“We were making a few more mistakes on our clear,” Allen said. “They started bringing their goalie out and pressing everybody up the field to make it a lot harder for us to find players on our transition.”

Cara Cappellini forced a Hamilton turnover out of a timeout with just over two minutes to go, but the Bobcats then turned it over on their own a minute later.

Jeffrey made one last big save with one minute to play, stopping Fletcher on a free-position shot.

Allen then called a timeout, and his message to his charges was simple.

“Keep your eyes up, find the open girl, make the easy pass,” Allen said. “And we did. We made enough easy passes to possess the ball at the end.”

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Bates was able to get the ball up the field out of the timeout, then passed the ball around before it got back to Cappellini back in the defensive end for the final horn.

“We practice full-field stalling, and we’re pretty confident that any player on the field, off the bench can handle the ball,” Jeffrey said.

“When you’re hanging onto a lead, and the seconds are ticking away, it doesn’t seem to go fast enough sometimes,” Allen said. “The team really did a great job staying composed. Made a few mistakes, bounced back from them, made a few plays at the end.”

Jeffrey made seven saves on 14 shots on goal to earn the win for Bates. Burrall and Rubin combined to stop 10 of 18 shots.

“A couple years ago this team lost a lot of one-goal games, and kind of our mission going into this year was not to do that,” Jeffrey said.

Bates is off to its best start since 1992, when the Bobcats started 10-0. The nine wins are the most the Bobcats have had since 2011, when they finished 9-7.

“It’s a great start to April,” said Allen, whose team still has games against conference-leading Middlebury next Saturday and second-place Colby to end the season. “Hopefully, we can keep it going.”

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