|The Spartans will be faceless
Castleton State athletics photo
By Tom Haley
Castleton coach Tim Barrett does not want this scenario. But you can be certain that if his team is sitting in the locker room staring at a double-digit deficit against Tufts in Friday night's Sweet 16 game, he will not be in panic mode. And neither will his Spartans.
The Spartans won their first NCAA Tournament games in the regional at Bowdoin and on consecutive nights had to overcome the other team's halftime lead. First, it was Bowdoin holding a 29-23 halftime advantage against the Spartans.
The next night the situation was more dire. The Spartans trailed Plattsburgh State by 18 points at the half. Then the Cardinals got the first bucket after the break to go up by 20. Time to go home?
Not hardly. Time to make plans for the Sweet 16 at Tufts.
"We knew we had not played our best half of basketball," said Castleton's Alyssa Leonard, the NAC player of the year, of the game against Plattsburgh. "We were in a deep hole.
"We were still confident. We knew what we had to do on defense. We had to get stop after stop."
After the Cardinals got that first hoop and that 20-point lead, those stops came with regularity. The Spartans clawed their way back, forced overtime and won 76-70.
"We did not play very well in the first half," Barrett said. "We were not rebounding and we were not getting back on defense. We had one offensive rebound in the first half."
The soul searching began. The adjustments took shape. The game would have to be won on the floor, but the plan for the comeback had to be hatched in the locker room. The Spartans talked about hitting the glass harder and getting back on defense. "On offense, we also cleaned up some things," Barrett said.
Like Leonard and her teammates, Barrett did not believe the situation was hopeless. But how good can you feel about coming back from that far down against a team such as Plattsburgh?
"I thought we would make a run but I was not a hundred percent sure that we would get over the hump," Barrett said. "We told them if we got it down to single digits with 10 minutes left that we had a chance."
The Spartans got on that run that Barrett felt had to come. And it came early. Liz Douglass, a transfer from William Smith and one of eight Vermonters on the roster, ignited the second-half fireworks.
"Liz gave us a huge lift," Barrett said.
She did it with eight straight points early in the half, an offensive flurry that included two 3-pointers.
Two comebacks in two nights.
"I could not be prouder of them," Barrett said. "Both days we kept competing."
And speaking of the two-day package, Jade Desroches was the headliner. Leonard was the league's Player of the Year, but Desroches was the Player of the Regional. The 5-4 guard is often the smallest player on the floor and the junior has been a fan favorite in her three years in Glenbrook Gym.
She is perpetual motion and ball of emotion. Her flair and penchant for making big plays at the biggest times has endeared her to Spartan fans. But she took it all to a new level on this weekend. She had a career-high 32 points against Bowdoin while playing all 40 minutes. She was 12 of 14 at the foul line including six in the final minute to preserve the victory.
The next night all she did was score 23 points and dish out eight assists.
She is small but the package is deceptive. "She plays much bigger. She has long arms," Barrett said.
That explains some of the 2.2 team-leading steals per game. But the bigger reason is the all-out hustle that has won the hearts of the Spartan fandom.
"Jade had an unbelievable weekend," Barrett said.
But the list of heroes is long. Leonard has been the glue during her four years after coming to Vermont from Amherst High, the Massachusetts school made hoops famous by the book "The Heart Is a Muscle." She leads the team inscoring at 13.7 per game and also corrals 6.3 rebounds a contest.
Shelby LaBarge scored 14 points and snared nine rebounds off the bench against Plattsburgh and made crucial plays in the overtime. Heather Murdough leads the team in rebounding (7.4) and Meghan O'Sullivan averages 11.4 points per game with a deft shot from 10 to 15 feet away.
It is a collection of players that won the ECAC tournament last March by beating Suffolk in the championship game. Sweet Caroline provided the net-cutting anthem after that contest. This year it's dance music and the Spartans do not want to stop.
There was no settling for the ECAC tourney this year.
Settling is not this team's DNA. Not even when they are seemingly buried at halftime.