NCAA Div. 3 women’s basketball: One victory away from first-ever national title, Smith College prepares for undefeated NYU

Smith College's Jessie Ruffner goes in for a layup against Wartburg during the semifinals of the NCAA Div. 3 Women's Basketball Championship in Columbus, Ohio on Thursday.

Smith College's Jessie Ruffner goes in for a layup against Wartburg during the semifinals of the NCAA Div. 3 Women's Basketball Championship in Columbus, Ohio on Thursday. CONTRIBUTED IMAGE/D3 PHOTOGRAPHY

Smith College's Ally Yamada takes a jump shot against Wartburg during the semifinals of the NCAA Div. III Women's Basketball Championship in Columbus, Ohio on Thursday.

Smith College's Ally Yamada takes a jump shot against Wartburg during the semifinals of the NCAA Div. III Women's Basketball Championship in Columbus, Ohio on Thursday. CONTRIBUTED IMAGE/D3 PHOTOGRAPHY

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 03-15-2024 6:38 PM

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Wartburg’s Sarah Faber stepped back and let fly a 3-pointer in the waning moments of regulation against Smith College in the NCAA Division 3 Final Four on Thursday night. If she missed, the Pioneers would go to their first-ever national championship. If Faber made it, she would likely send the game to overtime.

And as the heavily-contested shot swished through to make it 48-48, not one Smith player was phased – even after Ally Yamada came up just short on her buzzer-beating 3-point attempt on the ensuing possession.

Having been in pressure situations and high-stakes environments before, the Pioneers flushed the first four quarters and focused on the next five minutes. Yamada splashed two 3s in OT, and Jessie Ruffner put the game on ice with an and-one in the final minute as Smith clinched a 61-54 victory to punch its ticket in the title game.

“We were able to handle the moment much better this year,” Pioneers head coach Lynn Hersey said. “I think just being in that environment, understanding how big the moment is and trusting our experience and body of work really helped us to find a way to pull that game out… Down the stretch in overtime, we had some really great defensive stops and we were able to capitalize on those.”

Ruffner and Yamada playing hero in the clutch propelled Smith to a marquee matchup with undefeated NYU for the D3 crown on Saturday at 7 p.m. The Violets have been ranked No. 1 in the country for a good chunk of the year, and come in a perfect 30-0 overall. They’re led by a player the Pioneers are all too familiar with.

That player is Morgan Morrison, who played four years at Smith College – and was a huge part of its Final Four run a year ago – before deciding to move on to NYU as a graduate student ahead of this season. Morrison averages 14.3 points per game (second on the team behind Natalie Bruns’ 14.4) and 7.1 rebounds per game (also second to Bruns’ 7.2), and has started every game she’s played in (all but two) while shooting an eye-popping 60 percent from the field.

Despite the obvious emotion of playing against a former teammate and friend, Hersey said her team isn’t paying too much attention to it.

“Of course Morgan did a lot for our program when she was here, and we’re certainly very thankful and grateful for those journeys with her, but she’s in an NYU uniform and we’re in Smith uniforms,” Hersey said. “Our energy, focus and attention is really 100 percent on her team and how we can best prepare to game plan for her and their entire team. It’s gonna have multiple layers of emotional energy to it, and I think we’re trying to separate that energy and focus more on the execution and the pieces of the game that impact us winning a national championship. Because that’s what we want to do and that’s the focus of this group.”

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NYU also has point guard Megan Bauman, who, like Morrison, is a fifth-year transfer. Bauman played in the NEWMAC at Babson for four years, so Smith has seen plenty of her as well. Between Morrison, Bauman and the aforementioned Bruns, the Pioneers are going to have their hands full.

That’s two All-Americans and a National Player of the Year.

The key for Smith is “taking it quarter-by-quarter,” according to Hersey. The Violets typically waste no time asserting themselves early in ballgames. They’ve had leads after the first quarter in each of their five tournament games.

Preparing for a perennial powerhouse in just one day is a tall task, especially after an emotionally and physically draining game like the one Smith had in the Final Four. But Hersey and her players know it’s too late in the season to let fatigue be a factor.

The national championship is on the line. If that doesn’t wake a player up, nothing will.

“It’s tough,” Hersey said. “You have to be smart about the energy that’s being expended… It’s really [about] using your time wisely, and being able to get a game plan crafted and executed pretty quickly. But that’s part of the NCAA tournament with these back-to-back games. This weekend we have a day in between, which is nice, but you’re all in. You’re willing to push yourself in a very different way and I think we’re committed to doing that.”

With Ruffner, an All-American, and Yamada leading the way, Smith is ready to step up and face the giant on Saturday. A fourth straight NEWMAC title and first-ever Final Four victory is undoubtedly a remarkable season, but the Pioneers won’t be satisfied until they hoist the National Championship trophy.

And Smith College is just one win away from doing so.