Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Despite featuring the two best players in the Centennial Conference – Player of the Year front-runner Katie Lytle ’14, whose 20 double-doubles rank fifth in Division III and who enters the week third among Conference players in scoring and first in rebounding, and front-court teammate Elle Larsen ’15 (ninth in the Conference in scoring, tenth in rebounding) whose post moves are the most refined of any Centennial big – the Swarthmore women’s basketball team was picked to finish ninth out of 11 in the preseason coaches’ poll in early November.
Fifteen weeks and 26 games later, the Garnet found itself trailing by two in the final minute of its first Centennial Conference Championship Game since 2002 and locked in another barnburner, a defensive battle with the top-seeded Gettysburg Bullets on Saturday.
There may be a team, even two, in Division III women’s basketball with more close-game experience than the Garnet this season but no more than could be counted on a single hand. Entering Saturday, Swarthmore was 7-3 in games decided by six points or fewer including Friday night’s victory over Muhlenberg in the Centennial semifinal 62-56 in which the Garnet rallied from a 56-50 deficit with 3:30 to play to score the final 12 points of the night.
In a season that has featured a banked-in buzzer-beating three to beat those very same Mules, six first-half buzzer beaters, a near triple-double and a challenge to the program and Conference record for steals in a game, the game-winning basket on Friday was scored on what must be the most bizarre sequence of the year. Still trailing by one with under a minute to play, an errant pass destined for the Garnet bench instead connected with the belly of an official, standing in the court of play, and fell at the feet of Madge Ross ’13 who drove, with the shot clock running down, from the left sideline, across the top of the arc, and down the right side of the lane for a layup to put Swarthmore in front for good.
Thirty-five seconds and five free-throws later and they had set up a Saturday-night date with the Bullets. The point differential between the teams after their two meetings in the regular season? Zero. The Garnet dropped Gettysburg by one on the Battlefield in December before succumbing by a single point in the rematch.
Indeed, the final had all the tension that could ever be asked for as the teams exchanged defensive stands more so than baskets and the Garnet took a three-point lead into the halftime. The second half was the Caroline Murphy show for Gettysburg as the junior center dropped 15 points on 5-8 shooting and pulled the homestanders in front by four points when Larsen fouled out on a phantom blocking call with five minutes to play.
But Swarthmore was hardly finished and a Jess Jowdy ’16 pull-up and Kayla Moritzky ’14 three later, the Garnet was within a deuce inside of two to play. But on a night when the tenacious 2-3 zone of the Bullets held Swarthmore to 25% shooting, there would be no reprise of Friday’s late-game magic and indeed no further scoring in the contest. A contested floater in the final ten seconds went long and the 1.7 seconds remaining on the clock left no time for a second look after a foul and pair of missed Bullets free-throws.
As Gettysburg cut the nets on their home court to celebrate the program’s first Centennial Championship, the Garnet walked off the floor with their heads appropriately held high after the most valiant of efforts against the nation’s second-best defensive team and a four-month run few outside of the Lamb-Miller complex could have imagined in November.
Though the Centennial proved to be a one-bid league to the NCAA tournament on Monday as the Garnet was left out of the bracket as a Pool C at-large candidate, Swarthmore, with its 20 win season, earned the second seed in the ECAC South Region Championship and the right to host No. 7 Marywood (15-12) on Wednesday at 7:00 PM in Tarble Pavilion. The ECAC bid is the program’s first in a decade while Marywood of the Colonial States Athletic Conference returns to the tournament for the third consecutive year.
Moravian College, one of the final teams left on the table for NCAA at-large consideration, was named the top seed in the tournament. Semifinals and finals will be played on Saturday and Sunday at the highest remaining seed after Wednesday’s action.
Wednesday’s first-round contest, the final game in Tarble Pavillion for seniors Ross and sharpshooter Eliza Polli ’13 barring a Neumann upset of Moravian, can be watched via the Garnet Sports Network by visiting swarthmoreathletics.com.