WATERVILLE — The Colby College women’s basketball team made its NCAA Division III tournament debut a successful one Friday night.
But a Husson University team that lost to the Mules by 30 points earlier this season secured a significant measure of respect in defeat.
Colby used its rebounding dominance and late-game defense to outlast the Eagles 62-59 in a first-round game before 1,600 fans at Wadsworth Gymnasium.
The Mules (24-4) will face Babson, a 76-56 winner over Emmanuel earlier Friday, in Saturday’s second round.
Husson, making its first NCAA appearance since 2004, finished 19-9.
“We’re happy to be surviving and advancing, that’s what the NCAA tournament is all about,” said Colby coach Lori Gear McBride. “We knew Husson was going to give us one heck of a game, and they really did.”
Aarika Ritchie of Lee led Colby’s balanced offense with 13 points, eight in the first half as the Mules built a 33-28 lead.
Rachael Mack added 12 points and a game-high 16 rebounds for Colby, while Diana Manduca came off the bench to score 12 points.
Colby withstood an inspired performance from 5-foot-8 senior forward Shelby Bradford of Lee, who negotiated her way around the taller Mules throughout the evening and finished with team-high totals of 18 points, 11 rebounds and eight steals in 38 minutes.
“I’m really thankful she’s graduating, I feel like we’ve been playing against her forever,” said Gear McBride. “She is a wonderful player. She is so quick and so talented inside and just knows how to use her body to get in there and draw the fouls and do all the little things she does.
“We knew she was going to be tough to contain. We were just trying to contain her enough so she didn’t completely demoralize us.”
This was nothing like the earlier meeting between the teams, an 88-58 Colby romp on Jan. 9. This time, the largest lead for either team was seven points.
“I knew we had to come out and play our best game because Colby’s a great team,” said Bradford. “We had to drive and score like we did because Bri [Hanscom] and I are so much faster than typical post players, we’re not as big but we can hold our own in there. We also needed to shoot outside, and we did those things.”
Husson went 0-for-5 from 3-point land in the first half, but two 3-pointers within a 1-minute, 24-second span by reserve guard Marissa Albert of Fort Kent enabled the Eagles to match their largest lead at 49-46 with 8:29 left in the game.
Colby answered with a 12-2 run fueled by defense, as the Mules held Husson without a field goal for the next 7:41 while turning the deficit into a 58-51 lead.
Husson had one more comeback left. A 3-pointer by Noelle Lincoln cut the gap to 58-54 with 48.9 seconds left. Amanda Gifford then stole the ball in the backcourt, was fouled and made two free throws to make it a two-point game with 42.6 seconds to play.
But Colby worked the ball patiently on its next possession until Manduca penetrated into the lane and fed Samantha Allen for a 12-foot jumper from the left baseline to give the Mules a two-possession lead with 18 seconds remaining.
“At that point we were sort of scrambling, trying to pass the ball around and run out the clock,” said Allen, a senior guard from Naples. “Diana started driving to the basket, passed me the ball and I was open, so I took it.”
Husson drew back to within 60-59 when Gifford hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key off an inbounds pass with 5.3 seconds left.
Husson had to foul, and Allen made the first of two free throws with 3.3 seconds left. Bradford rebounded the miss of Allen’s second free throw and Husson called time — but had no timeouts left.
Manduca made 1 of 2 from the line to give Colby a three-point lead with 1.5 seconds left, and a successful inbounding of the ball at midcourt preserved the Mules’ hard-fought victory.
“I’m just extremely proud of our team because they’re just a bunch of scrappers,” said Husson coach Kissy Walker. “They never give up, they play so hard. We were outmatched in terms of size, so we had to use our quickness, and when you get an effort like Shelby’s, we can’t hang our heads.”
Part of Husson’s demise came at the free-throw line, where the Eagles made just 14 of 29 attempts overall, 6 of 15 in the second half.
Colby, which started three 6-footers while Husson’s tallest starter was 5-foot-10 Lindsay Barnes, outrebounded the Eagles 55-40, with 25 of the Mules’ boards coming off the offensive glass.
“We knew we had a size advantage over them, but they’re very skilled inside, they’re a lot quicker,” said Mack. “We just had to stay disciplined and try to get inside looks and then work our offense inside-out.”