A Look Back on Women’s Basketball’s Wonder Season

Despite their season ending against the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater on Thursday, the Mammoths made the most of their first season back from the Covid hiatus and have much to look forward to in the next few years after their miraculous Final Four run.

The women's basketball team huddles before their Final Four matchup with the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Photo curtesy of Clarus Studios.

The two of us were sitting in the airport on spring break when the final buzzer sounded. After four months spent watching Amherst women’s basketball, both in person and online, the ending felt extremely bittersweet. For a team that came into the season ranked No. 16 in the country, with more questions than answers, the outcome was pretty good to say the least. But knowing this group of players, this team, they weren’t satisfied with that result. While they had a miraculous run to the Final Four, it was the Final Four. Their goal was a National Championship.

Coming into the season, the Mammoths didn’t really know what they had. Their last season in 2019-20 was cut short after the team had made the Sweet 16. And only five players from this season’s team were a part of that squad — the five seniors, Jade DuVal ’22, Lauren Pelosi ’22, Courtney Resch ’22, Dani Valdez ’22, and Gabby Zaffiro ’22. The rest of the team is made up of underclassmen, three sophomores and four first-years, completely new to college basketball. This disparity was compounded by the fact that the team had no returning juniors: every first-year from the 2019-20 group left after that season ended.

Maybe this young team was exactly what the Mammoths needed, though, and it sure seemed to work in their favor. First-year AnLing Vera ’25 won a NESCAC Player of the Week award after recording the first triple-double in team history against Bates, and she notched multiple games of 25-plus points this season, as did Reeya Patel ’24.

Not to be outdone by the underclassmen, the seniors recorded stellar performances as well. Individual highlights include DuVal tying the Amherst rebounding record with 21 against Emmanuel College, Pelosi’s career-high 17-point performance in their contest with Colby, including going 75 percent from three, and Valdez’s own career-high 20 points against Wesleyan. For her play on the court, Valdez was named to the All-NESCAC first team by the conference’s coaches, the Region 1 first team by D3hoops.com and an All-American by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association; Zaffiro was named to the Winter NESCAC All-Sportsmanship team.

Amherst started the season hot, with eight consecutive wins earning them a No. 3 national ranking. But their first setback came when the rapid spread of the Omicron variant led to the cancellation of their West Coast trip — four of their first 12 games.

To make things worse, just a few games later, the team’s win streak was snapped by Bates, who they had beaten only a few weeks prior. The Mammoths quickly bounced back, however, with an 11-point fourth quarter comeback win against then-No. 9 Tufts, and the title chase was back on course. But this huge win was followed by another tough loss, this time to Hamilton.

They would not lose again in the regular season, entering the NESCAC tournament with a ten-game winning streak and a top-three seed. This run included a 49-42 win over Trinity on Senior Day that DuVal called a confidence-building win, and which should have allowed the Mammoths to control their conference fate.

The Mammoths would’ve had a chance to win the conference regular season title against Connecticut College, but, as characteristic of the season, another hurdle was placed on the road to Pittsburgh. The NESCAC title-clinching game was canceled because the Camels had too many positive cases on their team. This meant that both the Bantams and the Jumbos, whom Amherst had beaten in the regular season, were seeded above them in the NESCAC tournament.

While the Mammoths rolled to the NESCAC final, the match against No. 5 seed Bates found them at a 20-point deficit with 10 minutes to go. Although they ultimately fell short, the never-say-die mentality that got them within five points before the buzzer sounded served them well going into the NCAA Tournament.

Valdez cited this game as the one that fueled their tournament run. “We were down in the fourth quarter and by the end we outscored Bates 22-11, which was really impressive and showed how well we can play when we dig deep and play Amherst basketball. Since that game, I feel like a switch flipped and the team became hungrier to win each game we were faced with to get to Pittsburgh.”

Kori Barach ’25 echoed her captain’s sentiments. “We used [the loss] as motivation to play more together as a team. Just because we lost NESCACs, our season wasn’t over. We knew we had more to prove, and we wanted to show that [heading into NCAAs].”

Senior forward Dani Valdez '22 attempts a layup in the Mammoths' first round game versus SUNY Polytechnic Institute. Photo curtesy of Clarus Studios.

The Mammoths were fortunate enough to host the first four rounds of the tournament, playing at home until they left for the Final Four, which proved to be a big advantage. Their four strong wins against excellent teams were fueled by a desire to win and an impressive showing from Amherst fans. As fans attending these games and student-athletes ourselves, we can say without a doubt these were four of the loudest and most well-attended games we’ve ever been to on campus. That atmosphere certainly helped power the Mammoths to a Final Four berth.

After a relatively uneventful first round game against the SUNY Polytechnic Institute, the Mammoths took the court against No. 20 St. John Fisher College. And it was here that the crowd made its first play as the Mammoths’ sixth man.

Tommy Whitley ’24, a de facto leader of the student section at the game, said, “As a student section we did our best to support [the team] by bringing energy every game and emphasizing the home court advantage that they earned during the regular season. We tried to make LeFrak [Gymnasium] as loud and pro-Mammoth as possible and let the team take care of the rest as they had done all season.”

That advantage proved crucial, as the Cardinals went 11-23 from the free throw line in a game ultimately decided by eight points. Those misses, said Valdez, Patel, and Vera, can be attributed to us, the fans, and the sheer amount of noise we created.

Next up for the Mammoths was a familiar foe — the No. 11 Jumbos, this time with an Elite Eight berth on the line. In their closest contest yet, the Mammoths prevailed again, sending the Jumbos back to Medford for the last time this season.

Amherst then faced Trinity University in the Elite Eight, with their goal of reaching the Final Four hanging in the balance, and Maggie Shipley, one of the Mammoths’ 2019-20 first-years, returning to LeFrak for the first time wearing a Trinity jersey. After coming out of the gate slow and losing by three at halftime, the Mammoths weren’t deterred. Valdez said, “We didn’t feel like we were losing at halftime. Even [head coach] G.P. [Gromacki] was calm when he walked into the locker room. We all knew that we were going to win that game.” After that point, the Mammoths recorded a 28-point quarter with two separate 11-0 runs. Resch moved to second in school history in blocks, recording three in the game. And Zaffiro, Resch, and Vera hit three 3-pointers each on the way to a season-defining win. Resch dribbled out the clock, the crowd counted down, the horn sounded. We all stormed the court. It was finally time to book those plane tickets.

The loss to Whitewater in Pittsburgh was a dogfight. A back and forth affair with 10 lead changes, 13 tied scores, and no team leading by more than five the entire game. Everyone on the court hitting big shots. It was unreal. Ultimately, the game did end their season. But the experience is what the team will remember the most. “I think this year, we were special in the way that we were able to come together and really support and love each other from the beginning of the season,” Resch said. “This group is probably the one that I felt has been the closest in my time here … It’s something that I’m really proud to have been a part of.”

But the point of this article is twofold. Yes, we want to give these 12 amazing players all the respect and hype they deserve. But it is also a thank you. Thank you Amherst College women’s basketball for all the memories. Watching and writing about this team was a joy. Seeing you bounce back after tough losses and celebrating with you when you won was an amazing experience. We cannot wait to see what you have in store, and we’re so glad we’ll be around for the next three years to watch. We will, of course, miss the seniors who displayed incredible leadership and poise throughout the season, both on and off the court. Their ability to finish the season as they did, at the Final Four with an inexperienced team, takes a special type of leadership, and they rose to the occasion. These five have truly built this program, and deserve the highest praise. We have no doubt that next season, with a team of young guns looking to recreate this team’s magic, the self-proclaimed “future” is looking bright for ACWB.