Behind MVP Katelyn Pickunka, Smith College basketball takes down Babson for 3rd consecutive NEWMAC championship

By HANNAH BEVIS 

Staff writer 

Published: 02-26-2023 5:44 PM

NORTHAMPTON — When Sunday’s NEWMAC title game was all said and done, Hampshire Regional alum and current Smith College co-captain Katelyn Pickunka went over to her dad to celebrate – and show him the massive bruise that was already blooming on her left elbow.

Pickunka took a hard fall while battling for a rebound late in the third quarter against Babson. She stayed on the court for a while before gingerly making her way to her feet and heading to the bench the next chance she got.

But, in typical KP fashion, she was back on the floor for the final frame, dishing out a pair of assists as the top-seeded Pioneers bested No. 2 Babson 67-52 in front of a sold-out crowd at Ainsworth Gymnasium for their third consecutive NEWMAC title. The win also secured Smith’s automatic berth into the NCAA Division 3 Tournament; the Pioneers (26-1) will find out who their first round opponent is after the selection show on Monday afternoon.

Pickunka’s performance in the NEWMAC tourney earned her MVP honors as well, a cherry on top of what will be her final year as a member of the Smith College basketball program. 

“I don't think all of the emotions have fully sunk in but this is an amazing accomplishment, and it's a rare one at that,” Pickunka said. “This is my last run at it. I decided to stay and play a fifth year and potentially change what I was doing with my life, so this was a huge commitment for me… coming back, winning NEWMACs –  the [MVP] award was definitely a cherry on top but to do it with all my teammates and coaching staff, I couldn't ask for anything better.”

As is typical for them, the Pioneers’ victory was a group effort. Besides Pickunka’s MVP performance, Morgan Morrison picked up a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds, with 10 of those points coming in the second half. Jessie Ruffner added 10 boards and nine points and Amelia Clairmont finished with nine points and three assists. But perhaps one of the most electric and energizing performances came from Ally Yamada, who led the team with 16 points off the bench, sinking three triples and going 7-for-9 from the field. 

“She's critical. She is one of the purest shooters I've ever seen. Her ability to impact the game – it’s quick and it’s precise and it's powerful,” Smith head coach Lynn Hersey said of Yamada. “She's just so skilled at stretching the court for us. Her energy on defense, execution and shooting on offense, it’s a spark coming off the bench and something different coaches have to game plan for as a as a sixth person coming in.” 

Babson (23-5) gave Smith a run for its money in the opening half. Clairmont scored for the hosts right off the tip-off, but the Beavers never went away, pulling back from a 14-8 deficit in the first quarter to take their first lead of the game with 39 seconds to go in the opening frame. A Yamada triple gave Smith its lead back, but Babson hit a free throw with three seconds left to make it 17-16 Smith going into the second frame. 

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The second quarter was a tale of two segments – the Pioneers outscored Babson 11-2 in the first five minutes, building up a 10-point lead. With two and a half minutes to go, the Beavers found the offensive spark they needed, outscoring the home team 13-4 to make it 36-35 Smith going into halftime. 

“I think there were a couple of defensive adjustments we wanted to make. [Kelly] Walsh, one of their guards, was getting a lot of space and separation for some of her looks. We wanted to keep focusing on eliminating (offensive) boards and containing as much as we could their interior game. On offense, we were going to try to really pound it in the high-low game,” Hersey said. “The credit goes to the team. They came out, really followed the game plan and we executed that and we got a lot of really good looks in the high-low.” 

Babson gave Smith a scare in the early portion of the third quarter, taking a 43-41 lead via a 6-0 run, but the last 15 minutes of the contest belonged to Smith. The Pioneers went on an 11-0 run to retake the lead, and entered the final frame with a seven-point lead. The Beavers struggled against the Pioneers’ defense in the final period, shooting just 3-for-13 from the field and scoring just once over the course of the final eight and a half minutes.

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