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Smith College celebrates first NEWMAC Tournament basketball championship

  • The Smith College basketball team celebrates its first NEWMAC Tournament Championship following a 70-56 victory over MIT, Sunday in Northampton. COURTESY SMITH COLLEGE/RISLEY SPORTS PHOTOGRAPHY

For the Gazette
Published: 3/1/2020 8:55:26 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Smith College coach Lynn Hersey stood above a collection of players, fans and staff and was met with a chorus of cheers, as she began to wave a piece of the freshly cut basketball net through the air, in celebration of the Pioneers’ first NEWMAC Tournament championship.

“It’s a great feeling,” Hersey said. “I’m just so proud of our team, our players, they really dedicated themselves throughout the last five months trying to be the best version of Smith basketball we could be.”

Elle Jo Whalen recorded her first double-double of the season to lead Smith to a hard-fought 70-56 victory over two-time defending champion MIT Sunday afternoon, in the final round of the NEWMAC conference tournament.

Whalen, the Pioneers’ captain and one of only three upperclassmen on the roster, posted a game-high 20 points to go along with 15 rebounds.

“LJ has been our leader from day one and I’m really excited for her that she was able to have such a monstrous game today,” Hersey said. “Her leadership is what has helped this group get to this point.”

Freshman guard Jessie Ruffner also played a key role in securing a win for the Pioneers. Ruffner provided 15 points as well as a game-high four steals during the victory.

Ruffner, Smith’s leading scorer over the last three games, was named the NEWMAC’s Most Outstanding Player of the Tournament, becoming the first Smith player to ever receive the award.

“We have so many threats offensively and defensively, to be chosen for this, it’s just a huge honor, especially as a freshman,” Ruffner said.

Added Hersey, “We’re fortunate that her career’s just beginning here. She’s a baller, she has great instincts, she’s fearless and she plays hard.”

Smith began the game strong on both ends of the court, opening a 17-point lead by the end of the first quarter. Katelyn Pickunka, of Westhampton, served as the offensive catalyst early, scoring six of the Pioneers’ first 12 points.

After a dismal first quarter in which MIT shot 9.1 percent from the field, the Engineers began to improve offensively, spurred by the play of Kylie Gallagher who registered a team-high 17 points.

Jocelyn Luizzi also served as a key contributor for a resilient MIT team, posting 16 points and 15 rebounds.

Toward the end of the third quarter, the Pioneers’ lead was cut to single digits. However, the momentum swung in Smith’s favor following two key steals by Dashelle Gleissner.

The momentum carried into the fourth, where Smith pulled away thanks to the contributions made by Whalen, who was responsible for 14 fourth-quarter points.

Following a difficult rebound, “L-J” chants filled the arena as Whalen headed to the line for two free throws.

Fans arrived in numbers for both programs, resulting in a raucous atmosphere inside Ainsworth Gymnasium; something that benefited both teams throughout the contest.

Both Hersey and Ruffner pointed to the energy of their students and fans alike as an important factor in Sunday’s victory.

“The Smith community is amazing,” Hersey said. “I think that’s why we’re all here. We were really privileged to have them come out and support us today. We just tried to play hard for them and hopefully we made them proud.”

Ruffner echoed this sentiment, noting how excited the team was to be playing in front of their home crowd.

“It just bumped that intensity a step up,” she said.

With the victory, Smith earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Tournament. The bracket will be announced Monday.

Despite the bigger stage, the goal remains the same for the newly crowned NEWMAC champions.

“We will take it one game at a time, prepare like we have all season, and try to play the best basketball we can,” Hersey said.

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