Upperclassmen help Green Terror rebound

More news about: McDaniel

By Gordon Mann, D3sports.com

Steph Perez has "Mighty Mouse" confidence and the second highest three point percentage in the Centennial Conference.

At the risk of sounding melancholy, this week is the beginning of the end for hundreds of Division III basketball players.

Throughout the week teams will host some kind of “Senior Night” ceremony before they play the final home game of the regular season. The seniors will get a special introduction with their career accomplishments announced to the crowd, walk onto the court with their family, and maybe receive a plaque, some flowers, or a special photo with the head coach.

On Saturday the McDaniel women's basketball team travelled to Swarthmore College where the Garnett held its pregame ceremony to honor seniors Elle Larson and Chastity Hopkins, who were playing the final home game of their careers. On the opposing sideline, McDaniel seniors Steph Perez, Emma Wingerd and Lauren Ballenger knew they have two weeks left in the season and most likely at least one more beyond that. The Green Terror are 22-1, 15-1 in conference, and will host the Centennial Conference playoffs.

But two seasons ago McDaniel was in the same place that Swarthmore is now. From 2010-2013, the Green Terror went 18-39 in conference and missed the playoffs each year. That was a tough stretch but it has certainly not been the norm for the Green Terror under head coach Rebecca Martin. Including this season, she has led McDaniel to 27 winning seasons in 34 tries and tallied 508 wins along the way.

Martin is thankful to her upperclassmen who recognized the program’s winning pedigree and helped restore it, including the five seniors on last year’s roster. "I always give kudos to the seniors from last year because they weren’t necessarily the most offensively oriented team, but they bought into defense and helped turn the program around.”

Last season the Green Terror went 21-7 and lost to Johns Hopkins in the Centennial Conference semifinals. They rebounded to beat Delaware Valley and St. Vincent in the ECAC South tournament before falling to Catholic in the final.

When asked how this year’s team is different, Martin points to their experience and their improved offense. "This group this year, I think they’re more seasoned and we do have more offense. They’ve bought into the defense but yet we’ve added 10 more points per game offensively."

McDaniel won its first nine games, tripped briefly at Muhlenberg on January 7, and then rebounded with 13 straight wins. That includes a 63-52 victory over the Mules in the rematch, which Martin says is McDaniel’s best game to date.

Emma Wingerd has the rebounding skills of a forward but the passing instincts of a guard.

The Green Terror are powered by seven upperclassmen, including two seniors in the starting lineup, Steph Perez and Emma Wingerd. Perez is a 5-foot-4 shooting guard and Wingerd is a 6-foot forward. Watching them play, you wonder if they switched bodies and positions after the roster was posted.

Despite her height, Perez is unafraid to play around the rim on offense and challenge the shot of taller players of defense, with what Martin calls “Mighty Mouse” confidence. She’s dangerous from outside the arc, making 43 percent of her three pointers, second highest in the conference. And the graphic design major who has a 4.0 GPA works as hard on the court as she does off it. Martin calls Perez a "coach’s dream" because of her work ethic.

"She’s just driven. If she doesn’t like something about her game, she’ll go in and just work on it until she sees the improvement and feels comfortable with that aspect of her game."

If Perez is a guard in a forward’s body, Wingerd is the opposite. "She wants to see who’s open and how we can move the ball,” Martin says. “Smart young lady. One of the most selfless people on our team."

Wingerd plays alongside junior Alyssa March in the post and gives the Green Terror the interior toughness they need on defense to balance their guard play. Wingerd is ninth in the conference in rebounding, right behind March, and has a nice midrange jumper.

Joining those three in the starting lineup are two juniors, point guard Brittney Davis and swing guard Lindsey Nichols, who is the Green Terror’s most dynamic player. Nichols is a smooth ball handler with good size and a nice jumper. She can create her own shot, run the fast break or hit spot-up threes.

In Saturday’s game against Swarthmore, both teams struggled to shoot the ball in the first half. But Wingerd shouldered the offensive load (eight first half points; 14 in the game) until Nichols got on track with 10 points in the second half. Swarthmore senior Larson played like a one-woman army, scoring 23 points and grabbing 14 rebounds, but it wasn’t enough for the Garnett to score a Senior Day upset.

However the regular season finishes for McDaniel, the Green Terror are in good shape to reach the NCAA Tournament. They were slotted fourth in the first Mid-Atlantic Regional Rankings.  They will host their own Senior Night on Wednesday against Johns Hopkins and then finish at rival Gettysburg, which is locked into the fifth and final spot in the Centennial playoffs.

If the Green Terror make the NCAA tournament, it will be new territory for the current players, but not for the program. Martin has taken McDaniel to the NCAA tournament three times before, most recently in 2010. When asked to compare this team to others that made the Big Dance, she says it all comes back to the upperclassmen and their mental fortitude.

"They get down maybe on the scoreboard, but then they get that look in their eyes and they’re not going to throw the towel in. To be a true competitor and to be able to get through a long season, you have to handle a lot of adversity," says Martin. "The people who end up winning and winning championships find a way."