Women’s basketball: Jessie Ruffner, Smith College book return trip to D-III Sweet 16 after getting past Messiah

Smith College’s Ally Yamada (5) looks to make a pass against Messiah during the Pioneers’ 69-61 win in the NCAA Division III second round on Saturday night at Ainsworth Gymnasium in Northampton.

Smith College’s Ally Yamada (5) looks to make a pass against Messiah during the Pioneers’ 69-61 win in the NCAA Division III second round on Saturday night at Ainsworth Gymnasium in Northampton. PHOTO BY MATT RISLEY

Smith College’s Sofia Rosa goes to the basket against Messiah during the Pioneers’ 69-61 win in the NCAA Division III second round on Saturday night at Ainsworth Gymnasium in Northampton.

Smith College’s Sofia Rosa goes to the basket against Messiah during the Pioneers’ 69-61 win in the NCAA Division III second round on Saturday night at Ainsworth Gymnasium in Northampton. PHOTO BY MATT RISLEY

By HANNAH BEVIS

For the Gazette

Published: 03-02-2024 11:26 PM

Modified: 03-03-2024 4:18 PM


NORTHAMPTON – The bigger the stage, the tougher it gets to perform – and there’s no bigger stage than the NCAA tournament. 

The bright lights, the big crowds, the finality of it all – a loss it’s treated like a normal L, it means your season is done for good. The nerves and that stress can get to a player, and many athletes have struggled under the pressure.

That wasn’t the case for Smith College’s Jessie Ruffner on Saturday night.

With a trip to the NCAA Division III Sweet 16 on the line, Ruffner flourished under the spotlight, posting a double-double with 29 points and 13 rebounds to lead the Pioneers to a 69-61 victory over Messiah University (Pa.).

“I think I'm definitely a huge competitor. So in big moments, that's where I kind of thrive,” Ruffner said. “I've been in big moments before with this team. So having that pressure on me – I knew being a senior, I was gonna have to step up.” 

The win punched the Pioneers’ ticket to the third round of the NCAA tournament, where they’ll face the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh (24-5) on Friday at 5 p.m. Smith (27-3) will travel to Maine for a regional hosted by Bowdoin College, and the hosts will play in the nightcap against Baldwin Wallace at 7:30. The winners will meet on Saturday at 7 p.m. in the Elite 8.

Ruffner wasn’t the only player who stepped up. Ally Yamada finished the game with 15 points and two rebounds while Sofia Rosa posted 11 points and grabbed seven boards. 

But though many players impressed, Saturday’s game was still a challenge for the Pioneers.

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“I think they pushed us on a lot of levels tonight,” Smith head coach Lynn Hersey said of Messiah. “Ultimately they made us better tonight, and we're more battle-tested headed into the next round based on their ability in our home court to really keep their composure and keep knocking on the door. I think that's something we needed to feel and experience together as a group.” 

While Ruffner shined, two other star Smith players got into foul trouble late – starter Jane Loo was whistled for her fourth foul midway through the third quarter (she eventually fouled out in the fourth), sending her to the bench, and Rosa picked up two fouls in the span of 14 seconds in the fourth quarter to give her four for the game.

It was then that the Pioneers  turned to their bench to bail them out, sending in Jazmyn Washington and Selam Maher to eat up valuable minutes down the stretch. 

“This is the NCAA Tournament. You can't win with just one player,” Hersey said. “Everyone has a role to do… so if it's Jazzy getting rebounds for us and playing some D or Selam hitting a couple big threes for us, that's part of what they do. Everybody’s contributing in every way they possibly can because every game is really hard to win.” 

Though the game got tight down the stretch – at one point, Messiah pulled within three points thanks to a 10-0 run to end the third quarter and kick off the fourth – the Pioneers came out and put the Falcons on their heels early in the contest. Smith raced out to a 19-12 lead after the first quarter, relying on a pair of jumpers from Yamada and 10 points from Ruffner. By halftime, the Pioneers were up 36-26 after capitalizing on five Messiah turnovers. 

While the Falcons tried to claw back in the second half, Rosa stepped up in a major way in the third quarter to help give the Pioneers enough of a gap to stay out of trouble. After struggling to get some of her shots to go in the first half, Rosa strung together eight points over an 3:41 span and grabbed several clutch rebounds to give Smith an important momentum swing.

“The first half things weren't falling for me and I was having a little bit of trouble in the paint. Just knowing that (I need to) stay level, my team has my back. Coach is always emphasizing to play the full 40 minutes, our team is really prepared to go the long run and have that endurance,” Rosa said. “For me it was just about sticking with the game plan, continuing to do my piece… and that came up big for us in that moment, and I just embraced it.”