Amherst College holds off Tufts, advances to Elite 8

  • Amherst College’s Gabrielle Zaffiro tries to elude the pressure of Tufts’ Annika Decker during the Mammoths’ NCAA Division 3 Sweet 16 win on Friday at LeFrak Gymnasium in Amherst. PHOTO BY GEOFF BOLTE/CLARUS STUDIOS INC.

Staff Writer
Published: 3/11/2022 9:55:07 PM

AMHERST – When they raced out of their locker room for warmups, every one of the Amherst College women’s basketball players was grinning from ear to ear. Two years after their season was halted at the Sweet 16, the Mammoths finally got a second chance at that opportunity on Friday night in the third round of the NCAA Division III tournament.

“We felt terrible that day, and it’s unfortunate but it was canceled for the right reasons. You felt for the seniors that didn’t get to play again, and now these guys have kind of rallied around that,” Amherst head coach G.P. Gromacki said. “It’s about living in the present and taking care of this team. The past is in the past and it’ll fuel us, but we are worried about right now, the current team.”

In their third meeting this season, the Mammoths held on against a late Jumbo comeback effort and advanced to the Elite 8, winning a 48-45 game in front of a home crowd at LeFrak Gymnasium.

“Playing a team three times, you get to know them so well. You just know them so well, what move they’re going to do. It felt like playing ourselves,” Amherst’s Reeya Patel said. “At the end of the day, it came to the little things, those loose balls, those rebounds. Every single game has been close with them.”

The Jumbos struggled in the first quarter from the field, shooting just 3-for-17 for a 17.6-percent success rate. Amherst opened the scoring with a layup from Courtney Resche and a couple of free throws from Dani Valdez to take a 4-0 lead. Tufts tied the game up at 4-4, but Amherst hit back-to-back jumpers to make it 8-4 going into the game’s first timeout. After Tufts knocked down a couple of free throws, the Mammoths outscored the Jumbos 7-2 in the final 4:27 of the opening quarter to snag a 15-8 lead after the first frame.

Things didn’t get much better for the Jumbos in the second, while Amherst could not miss, shooting 54.5 percent and getting some major energy boosts. Though Tufts looked like it might tie things up early in the second, going on a quick 4-0 run to make it 17-12 after Patel got the quarter’s first bucket, the Mammoths quashed that momentum quickly. Resch and Patel hit back-to-back 3-pointers to fire up the crowd and post a 23-12 lead with 5:37 left in the game. Amherst carried that momentum through the rest of the period, heading into halftime with a commanding 31-18 lead.

“It makes all the difference,” Gromacki said on playing in front of a home crowd the last two weekends. “We’ve had great crowds and they’ve been into it, it gives us a lot of energy and confidence. You get to sleep in your own beds, it’s easier to prepare – it means a lot...it creates a great atmosphere.”

For the first time all game, Amherst struggled shooting from the floor in the third quarter. The Jumbos capitalized on a parade to the free throw line in the third, scoring nine of their 15 third-period points from the charity stripe. With 50 seconds left in the third, Callie O’Brien drained a triple for Tufts that sparked the Jumbos bench, bringing them within six points. AnLing Vera put the Mammoths in a good spot heading into the fourth, draining two crucial free throws with 28 seconds left, and Tufts couldn’t get a bu cket on their final possession. Amherst led 41-33 going into the final 10 minutes.

The first half of the fourth quarter was a defensive battle. With 4:08 remaining, Amherst had managed only four points, and Tufts sank just a single free throw. With 3:45 left in the game, th e Jumbos took off on a 8-0 run to pull within three points, with Amherst head coach G.P. Gormacki sending in Resch and Valdez during that time in an attempt to handle Tufts’ bigs. With Tufts just three points back and the score at 45-42, Vera forced a turnover that drew a technical foul from Tufts, and though she missed both her shots, Amherst maintained possession of the ball, the Jumbos forced to foul with 14 seconds left.

“Our game plan was to not let them get a three and deny the ball as much as we can... I was fired up,” Vera said on her last-second steal. “Those last few seconds were key to just pour your whole heart out.”

Valdez hit two free throws, and Maya Cwalina hit a shot from the line as well; though O’Brien got a buzzer-beater triple, it wasn’t enough.

Amherst will play Trinity College (Texas) for a spot in the Division 3 Final Four on Saturday at 6 p.m. back at LeFrak Gymnasium.


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