NCAA Tournament: Ally Yamada’s buzzer beater sends Smith basketball to Elite 8


Staff Writer 

Published: 03-11-2023 11:14 AM

NORTHAMPTON – With 10 seconds left in overtime, the Smith and Mary Washington women’s basketball teams had everything to play for.

The two teams were tied at 65 with a trip to the Division 3 Elite 8 awaiting the winner. For Pioneers fans, it was the most agonizing kind of deja vu – the final moments of Friday’s game were a mirror image of last year’s Sweet 16 game. Smith had possession and a chance to score on an inbound play with seven seconds left in overtime, but turned the ball over to Wisconsin-Whitewater, which scored a layup to send the Pioneers home. 

Smith waited all season to avenge that loss. Given the same opportunity one year later, it wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice. 

With 10 seconds left on the clock, Smith inbounded the ball successfully to Jessie Ruffner. She assessed her options, driving closer to the basket before pausing and changing her mind, looking to kick it back out. Ally Yamada sprinted over to help, and Ruffner dished the ball over to her. Yamada drove forward hard a couple steps and then pulled back, giving her just enough room for a last-second three-point chance. 

The shot went up, the horn sounded and the basketball spun once inside the rim before falling through the net, sending the Pioneers to their first Elite 8 in program history with a 68-65 win. 

“I remember [number] 23 and I were boxing each other out and it was like slow motion in my mind with the buzzer on the backboard going off and (the ball) kind of like bouncing around – that’s definitely a moment I will never forget,” Smith forward Katelyn Pickunka said.

They’ll face Trinity for a trip to the Final Four at 8 p.m. Saturday back in Ainsworth Gymnasium.

Pickunka was a warrior for the Pioneers in the paint, tying a career high with 18 rebounds and adding 13 points. Smith forward Morgan Morrison had a milestone moment during the win, scoring her 1,000th career point in the first half and finishing the game with 12 points and nine boards. Yamada led the team in scoring with 15 points, and Ruffner also cracked double digits in scoring with 11. 

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It was another full circle moment for the Pioneers in a slightly different way – besides exorcising their ghosts from last season, Yamada’s triple to send them into the Elite 8 was the Pioneer’s first buzzer-beater since Amelia Clairmont hit one against SUNY-New Paltz back in 2020. That basket sent the program to its first ever Sweet 16, but just days later, the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the rest of the season.

Smith needed another hero to keep their playoff run alive, and they found a pair of them in Ruffner and Yamada.

“We put the ball in Jessie's hands and she's great penetrator for us, and usually she's tough to beat especially off the bounce. I wasn't sure if she would get the look but I knew she’d create for somebody else. We trust her with the ball in that scenario,” Smith coach Lynn Hersey said. “Ally's just been so clutch for us in her three-point game and she's very confident and we go to her lot. The kid does not fear a shot (or) a big moment.” 

The fact that the game even went to overtime was surprising to the Pioneers. Smith outplayed Mary Washington every step of the way in the opening half, at one point building up a 23-point lead in the second quarter. The Eagles didn’t go away quietly, putting together a 6-0 run to close out the second period and make it a 40-24 game going into halftime, but the game seemed like it was already wrapped up after the first 20 minutes. 

Things changed quickly in the third and fourth quarters. The shooting woes that had plagued the Eagles in the first half suddenly had Smith snakebitten; the Pioneers shot 19 percent from the floor in the third and made just one basket on 10 attempts in the fourth frame.

With over six minutes left in the game, Morrison fouled out for the Pioneers, forcing bench players Cassidy Creager and Jazmyn Washington to step up and play big minutes down the stretch. A 15-point lead going into the fourth quarter vanished as quickly as it appeared – Smith was held scoreless for nearly seven minutes, and a late triple from UMW’s Elizabeth Dufrane sent the game to OT. 

Besides Yamada sinking two triples in OT, Amelia Clairmont also played a key role in the Pioneer’s win, hitting two clutch running layups to keep Smith alive.