It’s not often that you would describe the Amherst women’s basketball team as having faced adversity. They are the fourth-ranked team in the nation, back-to-back undefeated national champions and currently 23-2 on the season. From the moment that the Mammoths lost their first game in over two years against unranked Eastern Connecticut State University on Nov. 20, however, the team has found itself in an unfamiliar role: NESCAC underdogs.
At the top of the conference sit the Bowdoin Polar Bears, who are undefeated and ranked first in the nation since they lost to the Mammoths in last season’s NCAA DIII Championship game. Then come the Mammoths, sitting at 23-2, with their only losses being the aforementioned defeat to Eastern Connecticut State University and a Jan. 26 loss to Bowdoin, 65-56. Not far behind lie the Jumbos from Tufts, also sitting at 23-2, ranked sixth in the nation.
This particular tournament holds increased importance for both Amherst and Bowdoin, as they both currently sit atop the all-time NESCAC leaderboards with eight conference championships apiece. Both squads are considered favorites to reach the final, which could decide the first NESCAC women’s basketball squad to reach nine conference championships.
After these three perennial powerhouses come the rest of the conference, unremarkable in their individual achievements, but notable for the conference’s consistency and parity. Only one NESCAC team holds a losing record in non-conference play, while even Hamilton, who has gone 0-10 in NESCAC contests, has found itself able to dominate other opponents. The state of NESCAC basketball is strong.
Heading into the conference tournament then, the Mammoths face a relatively uphill battle to get back to the summit of the women’s basketball world and capture a fourth-straight conference championship, as they will, by virtue of their second seed, most likely have to best both Bowdoin and Tufts to capture the title.
Facing off against Wesleyan in the quarterfinals, the Mammoths got their championship bid underway in their typically dominant style, beating the Cardinals by a score of 60-40 and advancing to the NESCAC semifinals for the 12th consecutive year.
Hannah Fox ’20 carried the game for the Mammoths, scoring a game-high 23 points. Maeve McNamara ’19 scored 15 points of her own, dishing out six assists, equalling the total of the entire Wesleyan team.
The Mammoths found themselves in an unusually close contest at halftime, leading by only nine at the break. However, they found their stride in the third quarter, outscoring the Cardinals 19-6 in the frame and cruising to the eventual victory.
Amherst must now travel to Bowdoin, the scene of the program’s last conference loss earlier in the year, and face off against the sixth-ranked Tufts. The Mammoths met the Jumbos on Feb. 1 at Tufts and emerged victorious, 50-40, in a hard-fought defensive battle that would seem to foreshadow another clash of NESCAC titans in the coming days.
With the Mammoths hitting their stride since their Jan. 26 loss to Bowdoin and reeling off six straight wins against conference competition, the Amherst women’s basketball team seems to be peaking at the right moment, headed for a confrontation with the conference’s elite squads. If the Mammoths should happen to emerge victorious over the Jumbos again, and if Bowdoin defeats Middlebury in its semifinal matchup, the Mammoths and Polar Bears will face off yet again for another title and a chance for redemption.
If this should happen, this may portend yet another all-NESCAC matchup in the NCAA DIII Championship. The last two DIII Championship contests have been repeats of that year’s NESCAC conference championship matchup.
The Mammoths may have found themselves in the recently unfamiliar territory with an early-season loss and a conference defeat to a perennial foe, but the team’s recent form would seem to indicate a squad peaking at exactly the right time.