Coming off of a 9-15 season, the Swarthmore Women’s basketball team earned little respect going into this season. Picked to finish ninth in the preseason coaches poll, Swarthmore wasted little time in proving the rest of the Centennial Conference wrong, winning 11 of its first 12 conference games en route to a 15-5 regular season record and earned its first playoff berth in 11 seasons.
Conventional wisdom would dictate that earning the Conference’s second seed should earn Swarthmore some respect coming into their matchup against a Muhlenberg squad that the Garnet had already defeated twice. Instead the doubts continued; in a pre-playoff roundtable featuring play-by-play announcers from each of the five playoff teams, only Swarthmore’s Victor Brady picked the Garnet to win.
The doubts of others were in a way understandable: Swarthmore had won several games by three points or fewer, none more stunning than their second win over Muhlenberg, in which Kayla Moritzky ’14 banked in a three pointer at the buzzer. While it may have been easy for outsiders to attribute Swarthmore’s success to luck and a few good bounces, Brady recognized what every person associated with Swarthmore basketball this season did: that this was a team which exhibited a level of belief, effort and raw emotion unmatched by opponents.
Tri-captain Madeline Ross ’13 articulated the ways in which Swarthmore managed to find avenues to victory in nearly every close game: “I think that what is so unique and special to this year’s team is that nobody was afraid to prove people wrong. We believed in ourselves, and because really, we as players and teammates were the only ones that knew what we were individually and collectively capable of, it almost felt like we had a secret weapon.”
In the semifinal, Swarthmore found itself in familiar territory, trailing 56-50 in the final minutes against Muhlenberg. Once again, it appeared to outsiders that the Garnet would fall, and once again, Swarthmore, in the words of Ross, “[found] the heart and strength to finish the game strong.”
A three pointer by Centennial Conference Player of the Year Katie Lytle ’14 cut Swarthmore’s deficit in half, and the Garnet clawed their way to within a single point with under a minute left in regulation. After stopping Muhlenberg on the defensive end, Ross, aided by a fortunate bounce off of the referee, drove in for a layup, giving the Garnet its first lead since the opening minutes of the half.
After a backcourt violation gave Swarthmore the ball back, Muhlenberg fouled Mortizky, putting the point guard in a familiar position. Against Muhlenberg just weeks earlier, Moritzky missed two free throws in the final seconds before sinking the game winning three-pointer. This time, Moritzky chose to lessen the drama, sinking both free throws to put Swarthmore up by three.
After Lytle and Centennial Conference Second Team forward Elle Larson combined to make three free throws to seal the game, Ross and the Garnet could hardly control their emotions. Ross described the moment she knew her team would advance on to the finals: “I was on the defensive end as Elle sunk her free throw, and I remember just feeling like I was about to cry of happiness. I felt this unbelievable surge of pure happiness, and when that buzzer sounded, Katie Lytle and I both leapt into the air and hugged each other.” As Lytle noted, Swarthmore accomplished a season goal that few believed they were capable of: “We had been working towards the goal of making it to the Conference championship since preseason, so beating Muhlenberg was an incredible feeling.”
After briefly celebrating the win, however, Swarthmore refocused itself, preparing for a Conference final matchup with number one seed and tournament host Gettysburg the following night with a Conference title and an automatic NCAA tournament berth at stake. Swarthmore prepared to neutralize Gettysburg’s home crowd by focusing on, in Ross’s words “playing with each other, and continuing to play our game, to not let these swings in momentum affect us.”
In a physical, defensive game for all forty minutes, Swarthmore matched Gettysburg basket for basket. Thanks to strong shooting from Moritzky (11 points), and a hard-earned 25 points and 19 rebounds from the combination of Lytle and Larson, Swarthmore found itself with a chance to tie the game on its final possession. Though Moritzky’s runner clanged off the back rim, Ross emphasized just how close Swarthmore was to victory: “It was a two point outcome. One basket. Although it is really unfortunate that the game didn’t end in our favor, I think it’s important to highlight the journey that led us to this championship [game]” that really made it so special.”
Swarthmore, cited by D3hoops.com as one of its last four teams out, narrowly missed the NCAA tournament. However, the Garnet earned the second seed in the ECAC South tournament, meaning that the team will have the opportunity to finish the season with a win. Such a conclusion would a fitting ending for the Garnet. After all, in the words of Ross, “We are a team of champions, and we had one hell of a show this season. We have one more championship to work towards, and we’re ready.”