Smith College basketball team relishing role as No. 1 seed in NCAA Div. 3 tourney

By KYLE GRABOWSKI

Staff Writer

Published: 03-02-2023 3:21 PM

Receiving the NCAA tournament’s No. 1 overall seed shocked the Smith College basketball team, but it won’t overwhelm the Pioneers.

Smith has reached two straight NCAA Division 3 Sweet 16s and won three consecutive NEWMAC titles.

“I don’t think it adds any pressure to what we already feel. We knew at the beginning of the year that we were going to have a target on our back,” Smith junior Jessie Ruffner said. “We have a saying, ‘pressure is a privilege.’ If you’re feeling that pressure, embrace it. Every team we play is going to play their best game against us because we’re the team to beat.”

The Pioneers (26-1) will host the opening two rounds of the Division 3 tournament this weekend at Ainsworth Gymnasium in Northampton. They will face the United East champions SUNY Morrisville (20-7) at 8:15 p.m. Friday, while Marymount (23-4) and St. John Fisher (25-2) face off in the undercard at 5:45 p.m. The winners will play in the second round on Saturday at 7:45 p.m.

“The teams in our pod, we had not played, nor do we have a history of playing. It’s a lot of film trying to become familiar with all three teams in our pod and tease out what they do and what we need to prepare for,” Smith coach Lynn Hersey said. “We prep for all three, and we prepare to win the weekend, but we take it one game at a time. That’s really important.”

Smith has been through it before. The Pioneers are playing in their fourth consecutive NCAA tournament and are hosting an opening round pod for the second year in a row. Nine players have been there for the past two Sweet 16 runs in 2020 and 2022 (Smith College did not participate in the 2020-21 season): graduate students Dashelle Gleissner, Hampshire Regional grad Katelyn Pickunka, seniors Ashlyn Bohn, Breona Martin, Morgan Morrison and Ellie Potvin, and juniors Amelia Clairmont, Ruffner and Ally Yamada.

“We embrace those high pressure moments. We feed on the pressure. We want the pressure. We play better when it’s a bigger game,” Hersey said. “The experiences helps you be able to focus on what gets you the actual victory. The more experienced the team, you’re more able to block out the factors that are a distraction and hone in on what we need to do in practice, how we take care of our bodies, how we handle our academics. Those are the inches you’re gaining.”

The Pioneers have won 20 games in a row. They last lost Dec. 3 at Framingham State by four points. Their average margin of victory this season is 17.4 points per game, including five wins over NESCAC programs. Smith isn’t just blowing everyone away, though. The Pioneers won three overtime games. They’ve beaten six teams in the NCAA field.

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“The schedule put us in a lot of really big games against really good competition,” Hersey said. “We have an experienced group who was challenged in a significant way throughout the entire regular season and into the playoffs. We’re hoping that experience and maturity we gained will serve us well in the NCAA tournament.”

The Pioneers are both deep and talented. Morgan was named the NEWMAC Athlete of the Year after leading the league in both scoring (17.1 points per game) and rebounding (9.1 per contest). She had 10 double-doubles and scored at least 20 points 12 times.

“Morgan’s obviously an absolute beast down low. She’s relentless. She’s super hungry and tenacious on the glass. We get the ball in to Morgan and we know we’re going to have a high percentage shot,” Ruffner said. “She’s not content with where she’s at. She’s one of those athletes that feels like she’s constantly scratching the surface and there’s room for improvement. That’s a player you want playing with you.”

Morrison was the conference athlete of the week six times and was named the New England Women’s Basketball Association athlete of the week four times and the Division 3 athlete of the week twice.

“Mentally her approach to the game is one of the undervalued elements of what she does. She plays through a lot of contact. Teams are very physical with her. She has to just play through it. She doesn’t get frazzled by it. She doesn’t get frustrated by it,” Hersey said. “She understands that’s what her role is going to be and plays within a really good mindset she’s really evolved.”

She and Ruffner were named All-NEWMAC first team. Ruffner averaged 9.9 points and six rebounds per game with 99 assists. Pickunka earned a spot on the second team.

The Pioneers have won 34 games in a row at Ainsworth Gymnasium dating back to Feb. 5, 2020.

“It’s such a privilege to play at Ainsworth. The Smith community has shown up for us in tremendous ways. We’re really tough in our own gym. It’s a place we spend a lot of time in, a lot of hours logged,” Hersey said. “When you get to the big stage like the NCAA Tournament, all of those little factors matter.”

Smith is not only playing for its own community and Northampton, but historically women’s colleges everywhere. The Pioneers are the first historically women's college to be named the NCAA tournament’s No. 1 seed after becoming the first in the Sweet 16 in 2020.

“We want to win, but we have more motivation when we’re breaking history in different ways, as well,” Ruffner said. “We’re excited to keep Smith College and the women’s college on the map. What we’re doing is a lot more than playing basketball.”

Why stop at the Sweet 16?

“We’ve been to the Sweet 16 two years in a row. We’re trying to go further, we’re trying to go to Dallas (where the NCAA championship will be hosted),” Ruffner said. “This is the year to do it.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.]]>