THP #40: Nuclear Basketball

December 6, 2022 – New London, Connecticut
Mitchell vs Westfield State
Women’s Basketball

What happens when a conference dies? Where does everything go? Why does it fade away into the ether? Well, that very thing will happen in New England this summer when the New England Collegiate Conference ceases to exist.

And I mean fully disappear. No, this isn’t the Big 8 becoming the Big 12 or Atlantic-10 football “disappearing” but really just rebranding as the CAA. This is like the Southwest Conference: a whole conference competing this year and then simply not the next.

Mitchell, a private school with just 508 students, is my final stop in the NECC. There were only three others. Mitchell is lucky and already has a home locked down for the future: The Great Northeast Athletic Conference.

The Red Barn, an event space on the Mitchell campus.

“It’s been up and down. We’ve tried to not really think about it in terms of our team,” Mitchell women’s basketball coach Courtney Burns said. “Our administration worked really hard to get us in a position to get into the GNAC, and we trusted that they would.”

The GNAC is a perfect fit but hold up Mike: four schools? In a whole league?

Yeah. That’s been the NECC’s existence for the last several years. I’ve been to them all.

That’s it. Burns has seen the league fall apart since taking over in New London back in 2017. That year the Mariners opened the conference slate against Lesley. After that, three of their next five conference opponents no longer exist (Newbury, Southern Vermont, Wheelock) and one stopped sponsoring basketball (Bay Path).

Keep going down the schedule and there’s Becker College, which closed after the 21-22 school year, and there’s Elms & Dean, which are both now in the GNAC. Even before Burns got there, Daniel Webster College shuttered unexpectedly in 2017.

“We had, unfortunately, some of those smaller New England schools that closed down,” Burns said. “You don’t want to worry about having to add another team or be on a probation period this year. You want something that’s stable. You shouldn’t have to worry about your conference closing and competing for an NCAA bid. That should be something you shouldn’t have to worry about as a coach.”

The league had maintained its auto-bid for a probationary period but now that’s up, and the schools needed to find new homes. Mitchell and New England College will join the GNAC together next year.

It’s a great fit, in my opinion. The GNAC is a large conference that will have 15 schools next year, and it’s full of similar colleges to Mitchell and NEC. It’s a league of small, private schools across New England. It’s one of two conferences that have schools in all six New England states.

Some of the dorms at Mitchell.

“Getting into the GNAC helps with recruiting. It’s a more competitive conference,” Burns said. “I think it’ll help, when we win championships, to get a better seed in the NCAA tournament. I think it’s a great move for our program. I think it’s a great move for our school. It gives us, as coaches here at Mitchell, peace of mind because we have a conference and we’ll be able to compete for championships.”

As for the rest of the NECC, it’s not settled. Lesley has found a home in the North Atlantic Conference, which is a league of teams in the North Country of New York and Northern Maine. It’s not a great fit for a small school located basically across the street from Harvard.

And Eastern Nazarene? They don’t have a home yet. And looking at the landscape of New England, if the GNAC doesn’t extend an invite to go to a full 16, I don’t know where they land.

Watching the NECC wither has been sad to watch. Hopefully, ENC finds a place to call home in the future. For now, though, the ball goes on and the games get played.

And before we hit Southeast Connecticut, enjoy a moment with Bella.

Lyman Allyn Art Museum

New London is a lovely city. With a population of just under 28,000, the city has a long, illustrious history with the sea. A former whaling port, New London today is on the rebound after losing much of its manufacturing might in the last century.

On historically Pequot land, New London sits on Long Island Sound and is just a 20-minute drive from the Rhode Island border.

There will be two more stops in the city in the future, and it had been a minute since I’d been to a good art museum so I started the day at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum. Sitting in the shadow of Connecticut College, the museum looked great even against the backdrop of a miserable gray day.

The museum passes the first test for me: making art accessible. I despise how art is framed as this pastime for the rich and elite. With admission ranging from $5-$12 anyone can have an afternoon at the Allen so if you’re in the area make the time to check this place out.

Established in 1926, the Allen features a variety of works with many centered around Connecticut and New England artists.

History of the Museum

One of the first exhibits was one dedicated to artists from the Nutmeg State. While there were many portraits of colonial folk in petticoats and tunics, which you can miss me with, the more modern works of art were excellent. Any museum that has works from the Hudson River School artists gets a big thumbs up from me. And they had blog favorite, Winslow Homer, on display.

Shepherdess by friend of the show Winslow Homer. Painted on a ceramic tile.
Abigail Dolbeare Hinman by Daniel Huntington

This painting has a hell of a story as it tells the tale of Abigail Hinman during the burning of New London in 1781. That’s her staring down Benedict Arnold. I’ll let the museum description tell the rest.

There was the good weird too with the surrealist “The Jugglers Dream of The Trio Begins and Ends” by George Marinko taking up a good chunk of my time. Just so bright and saturated, there are so many ways to take in this work

I really liked Circling Back by Pamela Zagarenski. Such a fun, thoughtful work.

There was a whole exhibition dedicated to Louis Comfort Tiffany, son of Charles Lewis Tiffany of Tiffany & Co. fame, and his, and his studio’s work, in stained glass.

This pair of lamps showed the intricate detail and crafting that went into the pieces released by Tiffany and his studio. The 12 Lily Lamp on the left featured blown glass flower blossoms and a bronze construction. The original piece won the grand prize at the International Exposition of Modern Decorative Art in Turin, Italy in 1902

The Dragonfly Table Lamp, which I love, was designed by Clara Driscoll and won a bronze medal at the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition. Driscoll worked with Tiffany Studios on and off for two decades, and this lamp became one of the company’s best-selling forms.

What I loved most about the Lyman Allen was how it didn’t overwhelm. Some of the bigger museums in the region, like the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, are just so gigantic that it can be sensory overload to go and try and see as much as you can.

You can lazily see everything in the Allen at your own pace and be in and out in around 90 minutes. I love that. A great way to spend an hour or two in the afternoon. I can’t recommend this museum more highly.

The Good Eats

As darkness descended and game time approached I needed to find something to eat. I needed to recover.

Luckily, on Ocean Avenue, there was The Recovery Room.

A family-style Italian restaurant with a bar, it was warm and familiar.

Known for its pizza I took them up on it and ordered a BBQ chicken pizza. And folks…it may have been the best single pizza I’ve ever had in my life.

Just look at this wonderful, edible journey.

What. A. Pie. This may have been the best pizza I’ve ever had. Yes, I said htat in back-to-back sentences because it was warranted.

What did it was the chicken. It was simply cooked chicken and not breaded and fried. That kept the whole meal lighter and brighter than if it had been fried. Sure, it wasn’t as crunchy, but it was so so good.

Eat here.

The Game

Burns has done a phenomenal job in building the Mariner program. Small enrollment be damned, she’s put together a team that features players from all around the region and even far-flung locales like Seattle and El Paso.

“Last couple of years we’ve really kind of branched out. We tried to cast a really wide net to make us competitive,” Burns said. “Six years ago we cast out that net and had a lot of success in New York that was a start in the change in culture. I think being able to get kids from Texas and Seattle and Maryland allows us to compete in the Northeast where there are some really good basketball programs.”

Burns’ club calls the Yarnall Athletics Center home.

It’s, well, it’s fine. It’s what you’d expect from a small D3.

Trophy case
Banners of past success

One thing that gets a big thumbs up from me was the vending machine downstairs. Yes, there was a small concession table at the gym selling popcorn, candy, and the standard drinks, but I rolled the dice with the machines in the lobby.

And…I got….an AHA seltzer AND peanut butter M&Ms, the best of all the M&Ms. Hell yeah.

Hell yeah.

The gym itself was small and creaked with decades of use. I love rooms like this.

I love gyms that still have these old scoreboards. They’re becoming more and more rare so any time I see one I feel good. Not everything needs to be an LED HD board.

Now this game was radioactive. This was a form of basketball rarely seen, and to interact with it you should wear personal protective equipment lest the glowing shrapnel sticks to your skin.

The ball was tossed in the air, and it was immediately clear that Westfield State was here to break what we think of as modern basketball and turn it into a bubbling geyser of glowing, radiating, radical rock. Don’t believe me? Take a look.

The Owls had one speed: manic. Get back in the halfcourt after your opponent gets a defensive rebound? Nope. Run an offensive set? Nope. Pure, refined mania.

However, even with the mania, the Owls were down 18-10 after a quarter thanks to sharp shooting by the Mariners in their halfcourt offense.

For the vast majority of the game, until deep in the fourth quarter, Westfield would do full five on, five off line changes every 90-150 seconds of game time. This led to 11 Owls playing at least 11 minutes.

When the Mariners were able to breathe and run their offense they were incredibly effective. Yasmine Santos effortlessly cuts to the bucket for two here in the second to open the gap back to seven.

Santos would finish with 21 points on 8-10 shooting and 11 boards.

The Mariners kept giving it to the Owls and not letting the pulsating defense affect them. Amina Wiley goes in here for a strong layup and deserves a spotlight.

Wiley is a program-changing player for the Mariners. The New Rochelle, NY native is the first player in program history to snag 1,000 rebounds and will graduate as the school’s leading female scorer and has a good chance of breaking the men’s record too.

She was NECC rookie of the year in 2019, NECC player of the year last year, and simply does it all for the red & black.

“She just continues to grow every year. She’s a dominant presence inside,” Burns said. “There aren’t many players with her skillset and her size at our level. There’s not a lot of players that can defend her. Even when she’s not scoring she draws so much attention which opens things up for other players. She’s that complete player for us.”

Even with Wiley as a force, Westfield continued to chip away at the lead by the Mariners kept finding answers.

But again, the Owls reached into their bag of suffocating tricks to manufacture points. This time Morgan Berthiaume finishes with a textbook layup.

The chaos wasn’t enough though for the Owls as Mitchell went into the halftime break up five.

The third opened with a bang as the Owls cut the gap to a single possession but Mitchell found answers. Olivia Hadla had a three for Westfield here, part of her game-high 24 points.

I was in awe of the Owls. They kept coming and coming at a breakneck pace. It was a pace I thought they couldn’t maintain but they kept coming in waves.

And late in the third they took the lead. I didn’t even realize it but suddenly they poked a steal and finished the bunny, and the Owls were up six.

But the strength of the Owls defensively was their weakness offensively. There was little rhyme or reason when they had the ball and the Mariners were able to exploit that.

First, it was Santos. Then it was Sam McKenna.

Mitchell had a chance to tie or take the lead heading into the fourth. The ball found McKenna.

McKenna finished with a team-high 23 points.

See those people in the bottom corner jumping for joy? Those are Burns’ parents. You love to see family support.

There was still 10 minutes to play and the Mariners held the slimmest of margins. But they were able to extend the lead. Jermia Dumas finishes a putback to open the gap to four.

The Owls had their one gear and kept up the pressure. Eventually, Hadla would be left open for a corner three and tie it.

Back-to-back layups by Hadla would give Westfield a three-point lead with 90 seconds to go. Who do you call here? Amina Wiley.

She missed the free throw to keep it a one-point Westfield lead. All the Mariners had to do was get a stop.

But Olivia Hadla…

Westfield State 86, Mitchell 82. Final
Player of the Game – Amina Wiley (MC) – 21 points, 22 rebounds, 4 blocks
Time of Game – 1:55:28

What a crazy ballgame. Getting into the numbers shows how weird it truly was.

You just don’t see teams lose when they outshoot opponents 56.1%-38.8%. You don’t see teams lose when they outrebound opponents 51-24. Westfield State made one more field goal than Mitchell (33-32) despite having 28 more attempts (85-57).

What was the difference? It was that nuclear defense. Mitchell turned the ball over 48 times. That’s 1.2 turnovers a minute. It was absolutely bonkers but it worked. The 48 wasn’t even a season high for Westfield. The Owls turned Mount Holyoke over 50 times in November.

That’s the beauty of college basketball. Under the cold, damp New England sky there could be basketball so peerless as to take your breath away.

Thanks for reading. Here’s one for the road.

 

 

 

 

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