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Mahler: The Fickle Finger of Fate Points

Harvard's Jonah Travis, left,  looks to get ball over Dartmouth's Connor Boehm during the first half of Friday's game. (Boston Globe - Jonathan Wiggs)

Harvard's Jonah Travis, left, looks to get ball over Dartmouth's Connor Boehm during the first half of Friday's game. (Boston Globe - Jonathan Wiggs)

Twice within a span of six hours on Saturday, Dartmouth College’s basketball teams had a chance to make some real noise in the Ivy League. Twice, the Big Green had title contender Harvard on the ropes.

Both the men’s and women’s teams held double-digit leads in the waning moments of the second half. Both teams held victory in their grasp. But in the end, only one held up its end of the hoop bargain.

When the buzzer sounded at the Ray Lavietes Basketball Pavilion in Boston on Saturday afternoon, the chance for the men to gain that signature win, to finally announce that their program had turned the corner as a competitive and contending team, was lost when a 10-point lead evaporated in the game’s final 95 seconds.

Meanwhile, in Leede Arena, the women’s team was howling in victory celebration Saturday night after finishing off the Crimson and announcing to the rest of the Ivy League that the Big Green was back — at least for the moment.

“The first thing the kids said when they came off the floor was, ‘That was so much fun,’ ” said women’s coach Chris Wielgus, now in her 28th year. “The program is so much better and stronger than it was a year ago, but there really hasn’t been any reward. On Saturday, the kids got their reward.”

Fighting injuries all year with a team that is the second-youngest in the country, the Big Green (3-13) has been in most games but has just run out of steam in the second half. Two weeks ago, Dartmouth got blown out at Harvard, 88-66. After that loss, Wielgus challenged her team to step up the intensity.

“I told them that it was not good enough,” Wielgus recalled. “It was time to pull up their skirts and play.”

The team responded, working harder during that break, Wielgus said, than any other team she has coached. On Saturday, they went out and shut down Harvard, taking a 58-45 decision.

“We took them out of their game by slowing the pace down,” explained Wielgus. “On defense, we didn’t let the ball get into the paint. And everybody stepped up. Faziah (Steen) refused to lose. And Tia (Dawson) shut down (Harvard forward) Temi Fagbenle. I’m just so proud of them all.”

But, Wielgus was quick to point out, that victory — that effort — means nothing if the team does not learn from it and build upon it this weekend. Basketball is a brutally honest game. You can’t get caught looking back; there’s always another team coming up on the schedule.

“These next two games now become the biggest games of the year for us,” said Wielgus. “We have shown that we can do it. Now we have the obligation to do it every game.”

The men’s team also has some lessons to learn from its decidedly less-pleasant Harvard experience.

“Life is 10 percent about the things that come your way and 90 percent about how you react,” said men’s coach Paul Cormier. “Now we’ll see how we react.”

In yesterday’s team meeting, Cormier stressed two points to his team: “Before Saturday, we were happy improving every day. That’s what we were looking for. Now that has changed. We’re raising the bar of expectations. We’re going to attempt to win every game on our schedule.”

The second point was a little more personal. “In the last four minutes, we made several mistakes, including the coach,” continued Cormier. “There were some personnel moves ... defensive adjustments and assignments that could have been made. This was a tough loss for me to get over.

“We missed free throws, missed rebounds, over-penetrated when we should have slowed down and held the ball out a bit. Any one of those things could have meant a huge win. But it didn’t happen.”

What happened was a meltdown.

The young Dartmouth (4-12) team stopped doing the things it did well for the first 36 minutes of the game, while at the same time Harvard started making its shots — hitting all six attempts in the final two minutes to send the game into overtime, tied at 62. But by that time, with three starters on the bench and the momentum of its early lead shattered, the Big Green folded in the extra session, falling 82-77.

“We’ve got to learn from it, let it go and move on,” said Cormier. “The good news is that we got there; if we weren’t a good team we wouldn’t be there. But now we have to learn from our mistakes and go from being just a good team to a winning team.”

With the Ivy League schedule hitting stride next weekend, Dartmouth will play Brown Friday and Yale Saturday, with the men at home and the women on the road.

“I tell the kids every year — (the Ivy League season) is a marathon,” said Wielgus. “And it starts this weekend.”

Don Mahler can be reached at dmahler@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.