Saturday afternoon’s 64-60 loss to Bryant at Leede Arena left a bitter taste on the lips of Dartmouth as it breaks for the holidays.
And rightfully so. The Big Green (7-6) have overachieved for much of the first two months of this campaign, and if they are going to contend to compete in the Ivy League Tournament for the first time, they should be able to handle an NEC team – particularly a banged up one – at home.
Dartmouth fans may also begin to flash back to last season when the Big Green had an impressive November and December and were 8-5 before a tough loss at Bryant just before Christmas. And things went downhill from there; by the time March rolled around, Dartmouth was 2-12 and three games behind everyone else in the Ivy.
This is a new season, of course, and a deeper dive into Saturday’s game shows that it’s OK for Dartmouth to be cheerful about its prospects around the holidays. Consider that Bryant went on a 14-1 run to grab the lead in the first half which featured hitting four straight three-pointers. The Bulldogs (8-4) entered Saturday’s proceedings just 305th nationally from beyond the arc at 30.5%, but were 8-15 in the first half to take a 38-37 lead.
“They hadn’t shot the ball well coming in, and I think it was a matter of them attacking us and they made some clean ones, but they also made ones that even with the hand there, they stepped in to score it,” Dartmouth coach David McLaughlin said.
It is, indeed, the second half which was most troubling for Dartmouth. Bryant finished an excellent 12-27 from three-point range, but rudimentary math shows that means just 4-12 after the break. But the Bulldogs seized control but holding the Big Green to 23 points on just 9-for-31 shooting, 0-for-7 from three. James Foye, who has stepped up as Dartmouth’s biggest outside threat with Brendan Barry injured, shooting an amazing 51.7% from three (31-for-60) entering Saturday, but clearly other teams have noticed. Bryant hounded Foye into just five points and only two three-point ATTEMPTS (he missed both). At the same time, shooter Wes Slajchert somehow didn’t attempt any shots in 10 minutes of second-half action, and none of Aaryn Rai, Taurus Samuels, or Ian Sistare could break free or hit shots to open up Bryant.
“I think when there’s a plus-nine difference on three-point line (Bryant made 12, Dartmouth three),” McLaughlin said. “I just told the guys in the locker room, to make up for that, you’ve got to be great in all the other little things. I just thought we made too many mistakes, some that they forced, and it’s hard to make up for that.”
So who steps up? The obvious answer is junior center Chris Knight, who finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds, impressive by any standards. But he was just 8-for-18 from the field, and 5-for-11 in the second half, most of them coming from short range. With the margin of error so small, both in this game and going forward, Dartmouth is going to need a better percentage (like the 8-8 he posted against Central Connecticut in mid-week.
“We missed eight shots that we charted in the paint, and that’s one of those things I’m talking about when you’re having trouble in other areas, that you can’t have,” McLaughlin said. “To their credit, their length down there bothered us, but there were some that we should have made and didn’t.”
Dartmouth’s bench also offered little offensive help. Beyond Slajchert, none of Paul Hudson, Ian Carter, or Trevon Ary-Turner scored in the second half, and looked reluctant to do so for the most part. The Big Green also finished with just eight assists.
Are all those points discouraging? Of course. But there is a bright side to not ruin all of the holiday cheer. Consider that Bryant (even though it played without star freshman Charles Pride) might be the favorite in the NEC and has now won four straight, holding opponents under one point per possession in each. After swatting six shots, Bryant’s Hall Elisias now leads the nation in block rate (18%) and quick guards make things extremely difficult for opponents.
And – while Barry’s absence will make things more difficult – it was not offense that doomed Dartmouth last season, as they were third in the Ivy League in efficiency, and have almost the entire contributing cast back.
Even with all those threes, Bryant still finished at 0.91 ppp, a good deal of that because the Bulldogs got just one offensive rebound for a meager 2.9%. Dartmouth is now third nationally in defensive rebounding at 78.9%. There are 13 games of evidence showing that opponents will have a much tougher time against a defense that was the least efficient in conference by a fairly wide margin.
If you believe in the computers, Dartmouth is still the favorite to grab the fourth and final Ivy League Tournament spot, just ahead of Columbia. Most would still tab Princeton for the trip to Lavietes Pavilion in March, but – like Dartmouth last season – its defense has been virtually nonexistent for most of this campaign.
Dartmouth has two more non-conference games, at New Hampshire (Dec. 30) and against Vermont (Jan. 2) before it’s go time with the annual home-and-home with conference favorite Harvard.
Should the Big Green be nervous based on Saturday’s loss to Bryant? Maybe. But there’s still plenty of reason to be optimistic as well.
“It’s frustrating because these guys will be away from each other for four or five days and we would have liked to do that on a good note, but you have to remember that these guys have been going every day, literally, since Sept. 20 when practice started,” McLaughlin said. “We’ve only had three home games of 12, and they need to spend times with their families and recharge.”