Women’s basketball: Smith College turns its attention to Wartburg in second consecutive NCAA Division 3 Final Four appearance

Smith College guard Hannah Martin (22) drives the ball under pressure from WPI defender Emmy Allyn (34) earlier this season at Ainsworth Gymnasium in Northampton.

Smith College guard Hannah Martin (22) drives the ball under pressure from WPI defender Emmy Allyn (34) earlier this season at Ainsworth Gymnasium in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Smith College forward Sofia Rosa (15) puts in a layup against WPI earlier this season at Ainsworth Gymnasium in Northampton.

Smith College forward Sofia Rosa (15) puts in a layup against WPI earlier this season at Ainsworth Gymnasium in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 03-13-2024 1:52 PM

Trailing by one point with under five minutes left in the game, the Smith College women’s basketball team found itself in an unfamiliar situation.

It wasn’t the fact that the Pioneers were trailing in the fourth quarter of an NCAA Division 3 Elite Eight game last Saturday, it was the fact that they were shooting below 35 percent and still had a chance to win. For a team whose success typically predicates on its performance on the offensive end, Smith had to get the job done in a different way on the road against Bowdoin if it wanted to reach a second straight Final Four.

Smith held Bowdoin – the No. 1 seed in their pod – to just three points over the final four minutes and 28 seconds of game time, and senior Jesse Ruffner scored or assisted on all nine of the Pioneers’ points over that same span as they defeated Bowdoin, 52-47.

Wartburg (Iowa) awaits Smith College in the Division 3 Final Four with a trip to the Pioneers’ first-ever national championship game on the line. That contest tips off at 5 p.m. on Thursday in Columbus, Ohio.

“We tried to eliminate some of those easy points – transition looks, straight line drives, which their guards were really good at,” Smith head coach Lynn Hersey said. “Our defensive game plan was a good one, and our team executed at a really high clip for all four quarters. I think we won the game with our defense.”

The victory means Smith College is headed to back-to-back Final Fours one year removed from the program’s first ever trip. Hersey, who took the job in 2008, continues to strengthen the Pioneers’ case as one of the nation’s elite.

And after losing four key seniors from last season’s team, this year’s run only solidified that Smith College is en route to a dynasty. The Pioneers also had to win two games away from Ainsworth Gymnasium, defeating Wisconsin-Oshkosh (ranked in the top 15 for nearly the entire season) in the Sweet 16 and Bowdoin – in its own gym – in the Elite 8. During the 2022-23 Final Four run, they hosted all the way through until the semifinals.

Smith doesn’t rebuild. It reloads.

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“It’s a pretty impressive point to get to considering how much we lost from last year’s team,” Hersey said. “Offensively, minutes played, experience, all of those factors – to be able to come back with a group that, definitely still retained some experience and important positions, but had to bring in new players and develop a trust and a flow and a rhythm, that’s a hard thing to do. And then to go on the road for your Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games and win. I know we’re tough at home, but to beat Wisconsin and Bowdoin [on the road], that says a lot about the [program] having been in these moments before.”

Ruffner – a no-brainer First Team All-NEWMAC selection – finished with a monster double-double of 27 points and 13 rebounds to propel Smith to the win against Bowdoin.

The senior has been one of the most reliable players in the clutch all season long for Hersey, and that’s exactly why the veteran coach trusts her veteran captain despite opposing teams throwing any defense in the book her way.

“She’s playing like an All-American, and there isn’t a matchup she’s not willing to take on,” Hersey said. “I think she saw three different ball-screen defenses in our Oshkosh game. She’s showing her will to win, and I think there’s something really powerful about that. A player as talented as her also maximizes every possession with her ability to will her team to a victory… The really big possessions where she says, ‘Nope, this is my moment, and I’m gonna challenge this defense right in front of me.’ We put the ball in her hands a lot, especially down the stretch, because we trust her ability to make really mature, sound decisions with the basketball – and she’s come through every possession for us.”

As one of the country’s leaders in nearly every offensive categories, shooting a mere 33 percent from the field and 12 percent from 3-point range yet still winning a game to advance to a national semifinal shows the versatility this Smith team has.

The Pioneers are among the best in all of Div. 3 in field goal percentage, 3-point field goal percentage, and points per game. Yet as the old adage goes, defense travels – and it has throughout the tournament for Smith.

“They understand that, in the NCAA tournament, different teams are gonna come in with different strengths,” Hersey said of her group. “It’s about being able to meet those strengths of the other team head on and have a game plan that allows you to eliminate what they do really well. It wasn’t a pretty weekend, from an offensive standpoint, but our defense was championship-level.”

The next task is Wartburg – the No. 6 team in the country. While Hersey and the Pioneers won’t complain with ugly wins at this point in the season, she and the players are both well aware the offense needs to show up to knock off the Knights.

Wartburg is one of the most prolific offenses in all of college basketball, and the Knights actually like to shoot more 3s than Smith does, according to Hersey. They play up-tempo as much as possible, and prefer to open things up to try and turn it into a track meet.

Smith (29-3) will have to replicate its Herculean defensive effort from last Saturday, but also shoot a heck of a lot better if it wants to play for the Division 3 crown come this Saturday.

“Obviously they’re 29-2, so they know how to win,” Hersey said. “They played some other really strong programs and made their own run to the Final Four. They’re a really well-coached team, very disciplined on defense. They have two-way scorers all over the court, and they’ve taken about 850 3s this year, which is about 200 more than us – so they’re a team that really utilizes the 3-ball. We’re gonna have our hands full.”