Morgan Morrison’s late heroics propel Smith College past St. John Fisher, into third consecutive NCAA D3 Women’s Basketball Sweet 16 (PHOTOS)
|Published: 03-05-2023 12:40 PM
NORTHAMPTON – Morgan Morrison sat at the end of the Smith College bench.
The senior, and NEWMAC Player of the Year, picked up her fourth foul with 24.4 seconds left in the third quarter of Saturday’s NCAA Division 3 Women’s Basketball Tournament second round game against St. John Fisher. Smith, the No. 1 overall seed, led by just a point.
“My career’s not ending like that,” she said to herself as much as her teammates.
Morrison spent much of the first half on the bench with two fouls and started the fourth quarter there after committing Nos. 3 and 4. It was a declaration of both faith and intent.
“Even though I did mess up, I will make up for this for my team,” she said.
In the biggest moment, too. Morrison finished a layup through contact that tied the game with 58.8 seconds remaining. The Ainsworth Gymnasium reached pandemonium once it dropped and the whistle blew to send her to the free throw line. She’d missed her previous two from the stripe and understood the game was on the line. Crowd noise became white noise.
“Forgot about everything else,” Morrison said. “Before I went to the line, I looked at the basket and went ‘it’s going in.’”
That free throw put the Pioneers ahead 65-64. The Cardinals called timeout with 46 seconds remaining and drew up a play to drive Katie Moravec into the lane. She drew two Smith defenders, spun back to her left and found an open Kaitlyn Walker cutting to the basket. Or so Moravec thought. Smith point guard Ally Yamada jumped the passing lane to retain the ball for the Pioneers over the final 30 seconds. She missed a 3 with six seconds on the clock, but St. John Fisher’s desperation heave hit the backboard as time expired.
Smith’s bench raced across the court to celebrate a third straight Sweet 16 berth with its starters.
“We don’t always know how to win, but we sure know how to not lose,” Smith guard Jessie Ruffner said.
The Pioneers, the top overall seed in the tournament, will host Mary Washington in the Sweet 16 on Friday at 8:30 p.m.. Trinity and Wisconsin-Whitewater are the pod’s other game, tipping at 6 p.m. in Northampton. The winners play in the Elite 8 on Saturday at 8:30 p.m., also at Ainsworth.
Smith lost to Wisconsin-Whitewater in overtime last year in the Elite Eight.
The Pioneers (28-1) won their 22nd game in a row Saturday. Smith is unbeaten in its last 36 games at Ainsworth since Feb. 5, 2020.
“Honestly, I've never really played in front of a crowd like that. And then consistently in front of a crowd like that,” Morrison said. “It's so emotional. Honestly, it's the best part of playing here. It's like every player's dream to kind of see the crowd like that and support like that.”
Smith needed every bit of it. The Cardinals led for most of the game and built a 42-34 lead with 8:16 left in the third quarter.
Morrison then ripped off a personal 7-0 run to bring the Pioneers back within a point. She scored 24 points with 11 rebounds, her 11th double-double.
“You could send three people at her. She’s a special player,” St. John Fisher coach Melissa Kuberka said of Morrison.
Smith coach Lynn Hersey weighed how long she could keep Morrison on the bench to start the fourth quarter. Sophomore Cassidy Creager filled most of the minutes and posted three points and three rebounds with a steal. She hit a free throw with 7:16 left that gave the Pioneers a 52-51 lead.
“We have a lot of talent on our bench. I think if they were playing for another school, they would probably be starting and you know, playing half the game. They came here to try to win a championship and so every role is really important,” Hersey said. “Those are the momentum-swinging plays, and when your bench can help you with that, it’s such a lift.”
Ruffner also capitalized on the space Morrison vacated in the paint. She scored 12 points with eight assists and five rebounds and cut the Cardinals’ lead to 62-60 with 2:34 left.
“Being in the point guard position, I looked to distribute the ball more, but I also have to read what the defense was giving me. I'm a driver, so I was just driving inside and looking to get my shots,” Ruffner said. “They weren't collapsing, they were staying out to a shooter. It was hearing the team have my back, having that confidence in myself to take the shots down the stretch.”
The entire crowd stood to its feet and chanted defense. Hampshire Regional grad Katelyn Pickunka obliged. She stole a pass at the top of the key in a cacophony and gave Smith a shot to tie the game or regain the lead. Pickunka added a double-double with 12 points, 12 rebounds, a steal and a block.
“This year I’ve been playing a lot more perimeter defense. I’ve been trying to jump the lane and use my length and size,” Pickunka said. “I just stuck my hand out there and luckily stole it.”
Smith went to Morrison on its next two possessions. She tied the game at 62 with 2:02 left then sent the Pioneers back to the Sweet 16 barely a minute later.
“She did a great job of playing very smart,” Hersey said. “She went to work on the offensive end and had some massive plays down the stretch. It was a big lift for our team.”Kyle Grabowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.