Women’s basketball: Unbeaten NYU fends off Smith College to win first NCAA Div. III national championship since 1997

Smith College's Jessie Ruffner drives to the rim against NYU in the NCAA Div. III Women’s National Championship Game on Saturday in Columbus, Ohio.

Smith College's Jessie Ruffner drives to the rim against NYU in the NCAA Div. III Women’s National Championship Game on Saturday in Columbus, Ohio. PHOTO BY DOUG SASSE/D3 PHOTOGRAPHY

Smith College's Hannah Martin goes up for a layup on traffic against NYU on Saturday in the NCAA Div. III Women's National Championship Game in Columbus, Ohio.

Smith College's Hannah Martin goes up for a layup on traffic against NYU on Saturday in the NCAA Div. III Women's National Championship Game in Columbus, Ohio. PHOTO BY DOUG SASSE/D3 PHOTOGRAPHY

Smith College's Jane Loo drives to the basket against NYU in the NCAA Div. III Women's Basketball National Championship game in Columbus, Ohio on Saturday.

Smith College's Jane Loo drives to the basket against NYU in the NCAA Div. III Women's Basketball National Championship game in Columbus, Ohio on Saturday. PHOTO BY DOUG SASSE/D3 PHOTOGRAPHY

By THOMAS JOHNSTON

Staff Writer

Published: 03-16-2024 10:09 PM

Modified: 03-17-2024 8:41 AM


COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Smith College women’s basketball team refused to go away in the NCAA Division III National Championship game on Saturday night. 

Undefeated NYU — which entered with an unblemished 30-0 record on the season and had outscored its opponents by an average of 27 points per game — opened the contest with an 8-0 lead. The Pioneers fought back, cutting the deficit to 15-10 after 10 minutes. 

It was that kind of game the whole way through. The Violets never allowed Smith to take a lead, but the Pioneers conversely kept it tight thanks to their stout defense as NYU didn’t take its first double-digit lead until there was 38 seconds to play. Smith closed the first half on a 6-0 run to cut the deficit to 23-21 at the break but the Violets outscored the Pioneers 16-11 in the third to take a 39-32 lead going into the fourth. 

The NYU defense locked in during the final 10 minutes, holding Smith to four field goals in the fourth to take home the championship with a 51-41 victory.

It was the Violets’ first national title since 1997. Smith was playing in the championship game for the first time in program history.

“Congrats to NYU,” Pioneers coach Lynn Hersey said. “I’m obviously super proud of our team’s effort tonight. I thought we battled, especially on the defensive end. We out-rebounded them and did a good job on some of their key players. I thought our defensive game plan was pretty solid. On that side of the ball I thought we really executed well and gave ourselves a chance to make plays down the stretch and see if we could close the gap in the fourth. 

“Ultimately it was a really good team effort on that end of the ball,” Hersey added. “We showed why we are here defensively. Offensively we had some looks that we just didn’t get the right touch on. The sagging on Jessie [Ruffner], working through that throughout the game... we kept our composure, tried to do different things to get a look down the stretch. Sofia [Rosa] played extremely well inside. We fell a few buckets and a few players here or there short. I’m proud of our crew for buying in and putting that effort forward tonight. We battled for 40 minutes.” 

Smith (30-4) entered the game on a 16-game win streak, and was fresh off an overtime victory over Wartburg in the national semifinals.

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“The whole season we always had a second gear and punched back,” Ruffner said. “We’re a very resilient team. NYU is a good team and was going to go on runs. It was all about staying in it and punching back. We did a good job of that. We kept it around 10 [points] and it never got much bigger than that. We kept fighting. That’s what we always do. One of the biggest things I love about this team is we have so much fight.” 

While its defense did its job locking down the Violets, the Pioneers were unable to get it going from deep throughout the game. 

Smith finished 2-for-10 from 3-point range and was just 19-60 from the floor. Conversely, NYU was 2-for-8 from 3 and 19-for-54 from the field, but the Violets were 11-for-16 from the free throw line while Smith was just 1-for-3. 

“We’re a team that functions inside and has our shooters shoot,” Hersey said. “NYU did a good job not rotating off our shooters at all. We had some empty possessions that hurt us and that’s on us. I wish we could get those plays back. We had to rely on our defense today.” 

Bel Pellecchia opened the game with a trio of baskets while former Smith player and 2023 National Player of the Year Morgan Morrison added a basket to give NYU (31-0) its 8-0 lead to open the game. 

Ruffner got going to get the Pioneers back in it, scoring eight of her 10 points in the frame to cut the lead to 15-10 after one. 

Sofia Rosa made a shot inside before Ally Yamada drained a 3-pointer, tying the game at 15 one minute into the second quarter. The Violets responded with an 8-0 run behind a pair of baskets from Morrison but Yamada hit a jumper, Rosa scored in the paint and hit a jumper to close out the half, with NYU leading 23-21 at the intermission. 

“We got the game we wanted defensively,” Hersey said. “NYU has a lot of offensive firepower and we held them to 51 [points]. The second quarter was really important for us. We were a plus-3 in that quarter and kept it close at the half. I think offensively we had some looks that just didn’t fall. They were good looks. Good quality possessions, good sets. And there were possessions where we needed to be better. It’s a little bit of execution, a little bit of shots missed.” 

Smith kept it tight throughout the third. Rosa scored on back-to-back possessions that cut the Violets’ lead to 29-26 with 4:28 to go in the frame but Megan Bauman swished a 3 and Pellecchia scored on a fastbreak layup that helped NYU go up, 34-26. Both teams traded baskets the rest of the quarter, with the Violets hanging onto a 39-32 lead after three quarters. 

It took nearly four minutes for either squad to record a basket in the fourth, with Rosa hitting a jumper in the paint with 6:22 to go for the first field goal made by either team in the frame. Bauman scored for NYU but Rosa hit another jumper with 4:52 to go that cut the deficit to 41-36.

Smith’s offense dried up from there, as its next basket came with 1:03 to play. Morrison scored with just over three minutes to go and with the Pioneers forced to foul, the Violets made their shots from the line. Pellecchia made a pair of free throws while Bauman added five from the charity stripe in the final minutes, helping NYU hang on for the victory. 

Morrison led the way for NYU with 14 points and nine rebounds. Pellecchia added 12 points and eight rebounds while Bauman tallied 10 points for the Violets. 

Rosa scored a game-high 19 points while adding 10 rebounds, Yamada scored eight points while Jane Loo finished with four points for Smith.