Amherst women’s basketball looked unstoppable ahead of their trip down to Hartford, Conn., for the NESCAC championship game on Sunday, Feb. 27. They had won 11 games straight, gone undefeated in the month of February, and steamrolled their quarter- and semi-final opponents by a combined 44 points. But all runs come to an end at some point.
The matchup with Tufts on Saturday, Feb. 26, was, on paper, the tougher test of the weekend. The Jumbos came into the game ranked ninth nationally, the Mammoths eighth. Nevertheless, the Mammoths took the lead with three minutes to play in the first quarter and never relinquished it. A short rotation — just eight players touched the floor, two of whom played all 40 minutes — proved effective. A staunch defensive performance held Tufts to 35 percent shooting from the field and just above 20 percent from three; the Jumbos had averaged well above those numbers for the season, at 41.7 percent and 34.3 percent, respectively.
AnLing Vera ’25 ran the offense, putting up 23 points and seven assists on an efficient 9 of 15 from the floor in yet another starring performance for the first-year guard. Courtney Resch ’22 posted a double-double (14 points, 12 rebounds) and helped the Mammoths shut down Tufts’ formidable post attack with other forwards in foul trouble throughout the game. Despite dominating the glass and snatching 18 offensive rebounds, the Jumbos proved unable to run with the Mammoths. Fast-break points were decisive: Amherst had 10; the Jumbos had only one. This proved the bulk of the difference in a game the Mammoths ultimately carried 73-59, setting up a matchup in the final with Bates.
In the first matchup with Bates this season on Nov. 21, the Mammoths had shot nearly 50 percent, with Vera recording a triple-double en route to a 60-54 victory. But on Sunday in Hartford, it was clear that this contest would be different. In a messy opening five minutes, the Bobcats jumped out to a 7-0 lead. Shots just seemed to be refusing to fall for the Mammoths. But Bates didn’t exemplify efficiency either. As the two teams shot 7 for 29 across the first 10 minutes, a layup by Vera and and a pair of buckets from Dani Valdez ’22 were enough to keep the Mammoths in the game at the close of an attritional first quarter. They headed into the second down 11-6.
The second quarter wasn’t much different: both teams shot less than 25 percent from the field. Amid a flurry of turnovers and steals, the teams traded buckets. The Mammoths would pull to within striking distance, then the Bobcats would stretch the lead back out. Amherst cut the lead to four on a Valdez layup with four minutes to play in the first half, but a mini-run by the Bobcats in the last few minutes put the halftime deficit at nine, 21-12.
Something seemed to change for Bates during the halftime period. They came out of the locker room and immediately knocked down a jumper, stretching the deficit to 11. They proceeded to shoot just under 50 percent across the next 10 minutes — running up the score against an Amherst team that, after more than a month of dominance, just couldn’t seem to get anything going. Vera showed signs that she was regaining her shooting-stroke, though, knocking down a three-pointer late to make the game feel a bit less insurmountable. Nevertheless, the Bobcats carried a shocking 40-20 lead over the higher-ranked squad into the final 10 minutes.
Vera continued to be the team’s go-to scorer with the NESCAC title slipping away. She drilled an early 3-pointer, sparking a scoring run. The Mammoths scored seven points across the next two minutes, trimming the lead down to 11. Suddenly, the game felt winnable. But, again, the Mammoths went cold. Neither team made a field goal in the next five minutes. Fouls allowed the Bobcats to maintain a healthy cushion, even as they shot 0-7 from the field in the fourth quarter. A string of free throws jacked the deficit back up to 14, and even after Resch hit a three with two minutes left, the game began to seem out of reach.
But yet again the Mammoths began to claw the game back. Lauren Pelosi ’22 and Vera hit back-to-back 3-pointers to bring the deficit down to five, and the Mammoths had hope heading into the last two minutes of regulation. Again, though, the Bobcats redeemed their poor field-goal shooting at the foul line. A string of made free throws allowed them to see out the game and claim their first-ever NESCAC championship, by a final score of 51-42.
Though the loss was a major disappointment for the Mammoths, who came into the season with NESCAC title aspirations, the team’s season is not yet over. For their play this season, the Mammoths were awarded an at-large bid to the 2022 NCAA Division III tournament, and will assume hosting duties for the first two rounds of the 64-team championship bracket.
Abbey Skinner ’24 suggested that the team is just happy to have something still to play for. “We are excited to get to play in the NCAA tournament and even more excited to get to host the first weekend,” she said.
She couldn’t help but look ahead to a potential third matchup with the Jumbos: “We definitely have an interesting placement with the potential to play Tufts in the Sweet 16 (assuming we win this weekend).”
However tantalizing, such a matchup is still two sure-to-be hard-fought wins away. The Mammoths will start their title run at Lefrak Gymnasium on Friday, March 4, taking on the SUNY Polytechnic Institute in the round of 64. Tipoff is at 7 p.m.