Women’s Basketball: Smith College dominates WPI in NEWMAC Tournament semifinals

Staff writer
Published: 2/25/2022 11:01:18 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The last time WPI and Smith College went head to head this season, the game went all the way down to the wire and ended with a block from Elle Jo Whalen in the last second to secure the Pioneers’ win.

This time, it didn’t take nearly that long.

The Pioneers exploded in the second quarter, outscoring the Engineers 21-4 en route to a 63-35 win in the semifinals of the NEWMAC Tournament. Dashelle Gleissner and Morgan Morrison led the way for the No. 1 Pioneers, scoring 14 and 12 points respectively. Jessie Ruffner grabbed seven boards and knocked down 11 points of her own. Morrison and Hampshire graduate Katelyn Pickunka each grabbed six rebounds apiece.

“We wanted to essentially stick together and stick with our game plan. We didn’t really follow a game plan as much as we should have the first time we played them — they live off of the 3-pointer, and we didn’t shut it down. Today, we were on top of our stuff,” Gleissner said.

The second quarter was where Smith played their best brand of basketball. Not only was the offense clicking, but the defense swarmed WPI all period; they struggled to set up their offense with any clean looks, and the open shots they did get didn’t go the same way they were in the first. After shooting 50 percent from the field in the opening quarter, the Engineers shot just 16.7 percent in the second.

On the other end of the court, the Pioneers built up a massive lead scoring by committee; the home team ended the quarter with a 12-0 run, a group effort with points from Pickunka, Morrison, Whalen and Gleissner.

“We were aggressive. We went inside, and we tried to play inside-out basketball and generate some good looks for our guards out of our post touches,” Smith coach Lynn Hersey said on the team’s second-quarter surge. “I think a lot of it is trying to find our matchups and then being able to make reads and share the ball out of that. I thought we had that balanced attack that really showed tonight.”

The Pioneers will look to defend their NEWMAC championship title on Sunday at 2 p.m., where they’ll host No. 2 Babson. Babson has been the NEWMAC regular season champion for the last five consecutive seasons, but haven’t won the title since 2016-17. Though the Pioneers are the reigning champs, it will have been two years since their last title game; there was no season for Smith because of COVID-19 last year.

“It’s been a long time coming, a lot of work when no one’s watching ... it’s a lot of time put in, and it’s all for this type of moment,” Hersey said. “I’m so happy for the team that they get to experience that, and hopefully we’ll make enough big plays to pull that out.”

WPI came out hard in the opening quarter. After a couple of turnovers on their first two possessions, the Engineers settled down and went on an 11-4 run in the first five minutes, putting Smith hard on their heels. It took some work to make up the difference, but the Pioneers were up to the task. Morrison sank a free throw and then snagged a steal and made it back down the court for a layup. Ally Yamada hit a triple less than a minute later to make it a one-point game, and by the end of the first quarter WPI held just a 13-12 lead.

Jessie Ruffner found her groove in the second half, opening the third quarter with a layup and a 3-pointer before knocking down another jumper a minute and a half later to make it 40-25 Smith. But with plenty of time left on the clock, WPI came out of halftime much more disciplined. The teams played more of a chess match in the third, with Smith just edging out WPI 14-13 in scoring. But as far as momentum goes, that was all Smith’s heading into the final period, thanks to a last-second steal and layup by Gleissner that brought the packed home stands to their feet. Both Gleissner’s high-energy play and the post play of Morrison and Pickunka impressed Hersey.

“(Gleissner) sets a nice tone, has defensive energy, (has an) ability to generate steals...really makes the opponent uncomfortable in what they do offensively. I think her pressure and her presence was really helpful in that,” Hersey said. “Our post presence, Morrison and (Pickunka), they both provided some really steady offense in the interior, and with the single matchups, we were able to capitalize on that.”

No matter what WPI threw at Smith in the final quarter, it was too little, too late for the Engineers. Staring down a 17-point deficit with just 10 minutes to play was too much for WPI against a smothering Smith defense. The Pioneers outscored the Engineers 16-5 in the final period to seal their statement win in the semis.

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