The Hillsdale College Chargers’ season came to an end on Friday, March 8 in a 72 – 70 loss to Walsh University in the semifinal round of the G-MAC tournament. Walsh won the tournament, defeating Kentucky Wesleyan College the next day in the championship game.
Although the Chargers led at the ends of the first three quarters, the Cavaliers outscored Hillsdale 22 – 15 in the final quarter, and led by as many as seven points with just 37 seconds remaining in the game.
Senior forward Brittany Gray and freshman guard Lauren Daffenberg hit three-pointers on consecutive ensuing possessions however, bringing the Chargers within two, at 72 – 70. After Walsh botched an opportunity to put the game away at the free throw line with two missed free throws, Hillsdale had one last opportunity to tie the game or take the lead with three seconds left, but couldn’t get a shot to fall.
“Our motion had been so good that we were just going to trust our players there,” head coach Matt Fritsche said. “I thought our kids just played their butts off and thought they executed their scouting report perfectly and thought their effort and focus was off-the-charts good.”
Gray led the Chargers with 24 points and made six of 12 three-point shots. She finishes the season with 89 three-pointers on the year, a single-season school record.
The Chargers finish the season 17 – 13 and 14 – 8 against G-MAC opponents. Walsh defeated Hillsdale during the regular season, 83 – 56, the Chargers’ largest margin of loss all year.
After beginning the year 0 – 4 and staggering through the first half of the conference schedule with a 6 – 7 G-MAC record, the Chargers finished the season by winning nine of their final 11 games, including a victory against the University of Findlay in the quarterfinal round of the G-MAC tournament on March 5.
“The season didn’t start off how we wanted, but toward the end we played the best we could and gave it our all,” Gray said. “In that sense, I’m happy about what we accomplished this season.”
Hillsdale enjoyed a season-high eight-game winning streak from Jan. 31 to Feb. 28, when they defeated eight consecutive conference opponents. The Chargers allowed more than 70 points only twice during the streak, and held opponents to less than 60 points three times.
The Chargers will graduate three senior starters: forward Makenna Ott, guard Allie Dewire, and Gray. All three reached 1,000 career points over the course season — Ott on Nov. 19, Dewire on Jan. 10, and Gray on Feb. 21.
Moving forward, Hillsdale will certainly miss the impact Ott, Dewire, and Gray brought to the floor this season and in the last four years. All three finished in the top 10 in the G-MAC in scoring during the regular season, and were the only trio of teammates in the conference to average at least 12 points per game. Gray led the Chargers in total points scored with more than 400, Dewire in points per game at 14.3, and Ott in shooting percentage at 45 percent.
“We had some seniors that didn’t want their year to be over,” Fritsche said. “We had some younger kids that continued to improve as the year went on. We had a team that really liked each other and had fun being together.”
Freshman guards Grace Touchette and Daffenberg were the Chargers’ two best players off the bench this season. Both appeared in all 30 games, and Touchette stepped up as the starting point guard early in the season while Dewire recovered from a concussion.
Daffenberg was the team’s fourth-best scorer overall despite not starting a single game. She averaged nearly 17 minutes on the floor per game and scored 9.7 points per game. She scored a season-high 23 points twice, in a loss to Ferris State University on Nov. 19, and a win against Ursuline College on Dec. 18. She reached double digits in scoring 15 times.
After Gray, Daffenberg was the team’s best three-point shooting threat, sinking 52 shots from beyond the arc. Daffenberg was also the team’s best overall free throw shooter, shooting 87.5 percent from the stripe during the season. She missed just six free throws all year.
Touchette was the team’s fifth-best scorer, averaging 7.4 points per game while being on the floor for 19 minutes per game. She scored a season-high 20 points in a win against Tiffin University on Dec. 1, and scored in double digits nine times.
Looking ahead to next season, Fritsche said he and the coaching staff want to implement a better strategy for beginning the season strong. A strong showing against non-conference regional teams in November and December could have put the Chargers in position to qualify for the NCAA Division II national tournament regardless of their performance in the G-MAC tournament, but Hillsdale was just 1 – 4 when its conference schedule began.
“If we played two-thirds of the year like we played our last 12 games, we would have been in the regional rankings,” Fritsche said. “We were as good as a couple of those teams that made it in, but our work in the beginning didn’t justify a regional ranking.”
Fritsche and the team were sold on the mindset of “peaking at the end” all season long. The Chargers played their best basketball of the year in February and March, but they didn’t get the opportunity to reach the top of that peak in the national tournament in part because of their slow start to the season.
Reflecting on the “peak at the end” mindset, Fritsche suggested it would be better to think of “climbing to a peak from a plateau” next season instead of “climbing to a peak from a valley.” All signs point to Fritsche and the Chargers emphasizing the quality of their performance early in the season more in 2019 – 2020.
“We have to figure out a way to be better earlier and be sharper at the beginning of the year than we were and get the kids more ready for the season than we have the last two years,” Fritsche said.
In his first two seasons as head coach at Hillsdale, Fritsche has compiled a 36 – 24 record. In the months of November and December, his teams are 13 – 11, while in January, February, and March, his team has gone 23 – 13 the last two seasons.
While the Chargers are losing more than half of their total offensive production from their three departing senior starters, their incoming freshman class will feature six new faces. Fritsche said he expects to take a “committee” approach in determining how to replace Ott, Dewire, and Gray’s production in the starting lineup next season.
As the door closes on the 2018 – 2019 season, it tells the tale of two halves: a slow start spurred on by a perfect February and a two-point difference between an early exit from the conference tournament and an opportunity to raise the banner that reads ‘G-MAC tournament champions’ for a second consecutive year. The Chargers fell on the wrong side of the two points.
“As a coach, you obviously want to win all the time, but you want your kids to have a good experience,” Fritsche said. “The first half of the season was a mediocre experience, but the second half was a terrific experience.”