NCAA women’s basketball: Amherst College, Smith College win tourney openers

  • Amherst’s Dani Valdez goes to the basket during her team’s 60-42 win over SUNY-Poly in the opening round of the NCAA Division 3 Tournament on Friday at LeFrak Gymnasium in Amherst. Geoff Bolte/Clarus Studios

  • Amherst’s Dani Valdez (24) goes up strong against SUNY Poly in Friday’s NCAA Div. 3 Tournament opener at LeFrak Gymnasium in Amherst. Geoff Bolte/Clarus Studios

Staff Writer 
Published: 3/4/2022 9:57:16 PM
Modified: 3/4/2022 9:56:52 PM

AMHERST — From the opening tip-off, it was clear that Amherst College was going to make SUNY-Poly fight for every single point it put on the board. 

The Mammoths jumped out to a comfortable 9-0 lead in the first 3 minutes, 42 seconds of the opening quarter and never let the Wildcats take back the lead, walking away with a 60-42 win in the first round of the NCAA Div. 3 tournament.

The Mammoths’ defense was dominant all evening at LeFrak Gymnasium, forcing 22 SUNY-Poly turnovers and scoring 21 of their 60 points off turnovers. Dani Valdez was remarkable for the Mammoths, posting 18 points, eight boards, three assists and three steals. Reeya Patel knocked down 10 points of her own in the win.

The Mammoth (21-3) will face St. John Fisher (25-2) in the second round of the tournament, which will be back at LeFrak on Saturday at 6 p.m.  

“We were going to try to keep their post players from posting up on the block, but that didn't happen,” SUNY-Poly head coach Jessica Skelton said of Amherst. “Honestly, they don't do anything special. They're just disciplined.”

That disciple was on display all night as the Mammoths locked down SUNY-Poly’s offense, not allowing a basket from the visitors in the first five minutes of both the first and second quarters. Amherst held the Wildcats to just six points in the second frame, and four of those came from the foul line.  

Though their defense was the star, the Mammoths’ offense was a huge part of their first quarter success. Patel opened the scoring, sinking two free throws. Shortly after, Valdez and Patel hit back-to-back jumpers before Courtney Resch sank a triple. From there, the scoring was fairly back-and-forth, with the Mammoths outscoring the Wildcats 10-9 in the final five minutes, but the damage was already done. The Wildcats also had a dismal 12.5-shooting percentage in the second, going just 1-for-8 from the field, allowing the the Mammoths to go into the half with a 29-16 lead, their largest of the game. 

The third quarter was a game of mini-runs, with both teams managing to string together a few 4-0 runs before the other would strike back. No matter the effort, SUNY-Poly couldn’t make a dent in the Mammoths’ lead; Valdez scored eight more points in the third frame, and Jade DuVal padded the lead with her first triple of the season. Lauren Denny hit a buzzer-beater triple for SUNY-Poly to make it 48-32 heading into the final frame.

The fourth quarter was much of the same for Amherst, outscoring the visitors 10-8 in the final period. 

The win in the tournament means something extra this year; there are a number of players on this squad who were on Amherst’s 2020 team that reached the Sweet 16 before COVID-19 shut down their season abruptly. Two years later, they’re getting their shot at redemption.

“That day where we found out (the tournament was canceled) still lives in my mind. I was walking through it today, when we were starting – looking at all the banners up in the gym, all those memories sort of come flooding back,” Resch said. “It means so much to be in this position again, to be hosting here, that's so special. I think we're just excited to do with it what we can. We've waited two years for this.” 

Smith College advances

The Pioneers exploded in the third quarter, dropping 19 points in a 5:07 span to run away with a 61-51 victory over Framingham State in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Friday in Northampton. Morgan Morrison led the Pioneers with a double-double, recording 21 points and 10 rebounds, followed by Westhampton native Katelyn Pickunka with 11 points and eight boards and Jessie Ruffner with eight points and nine boards. 

Smith held a slim 29-26 lead  at halftime after two close opening quarters. After a back-and-forth start, the Rams took the lead with just under four minutes to go in the first and held onto it until the final bucket in the period from Elle Jo Whalen. Smith managed to cling to that lead for most of the second, though it was a hard-fought battle. 

But the Pioneers came out of halftime with the hot hand, outscoring Framingham 19-4 in the first half of the third period and blowing the game wide open, racing out to a 48-30 lead. The Rams didn’t make it easy for the Pioneers – they finished the quarter on a 7-0 run of their own, holding Smith entirely off the board in the last 4:53 of the quarter. 

The Rams closed the gap to eight a couple of times in the  fourth, but it wasn’t enough to  overcome the massive lead Smith built earlier. 

The Pioneers will host Brooklyn College in the second round on Saturday at 6 p.m. back in Northampton with a spot in the Sweet 16 on the line.

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