By Justin Long
Jaci Daigneault ’11, NCAA Division III Player of the Year, during the national championship game.
By the time the women’s basketball team got to the national championship game on March 19, 2011, there was no point in wondering how the Lord Jeffs were going to win. Whatever obstacle stood in their way, they were going to knock it down.
The women had lost to Washington University in St. Louis in national semifinals in 2009 and 2010. Wash U had won more NCAA Tournament games and national titles than any other Division III school. In Shirk Stadium on the campus of host Illinois Wesleyan University, Wash U had brought cheerleaders, a rowdy and confident crowd and an army of assistant coaches. Amherst, meanwhile, had but a small group of passionate fans and two coaches. No band, no painted faces. Maybe it wasn’t a case of David versus Goliath (David wasn’t 31-1 when he went up against Goliath), but there were a lot of reasons to put your money on Wash U.
But it was clear from the beginning that the Jeffs knew exactly how to beat their rival. The Bears never stood a chance. That isn’t to say they weren’t a good team: as Amherst Head Coach G.P. Gromacki noted in the post-game press conference, it was the best team Amherst had seen all year. They just weren’t going to stop Amherst this time. Nobody was.
The Bears scored five points in the opening 11 minutes and 49 seconds, they made six field goals in the first half, and they were out-rebounded 26-13 in the second. Amherst pounded the boards, played extraordinary defense and got significant contributions from eight players. “It turned into a defensive struggle, and that played right into the hands of Head Coach G.P. Gromacki,” said broadcaster Will Haskett on NCAA.com.
Below right: the unadulterated glee of new national champs.
The greatest moment of the game was also the greatest of the season. Amherst led for the final 14:17, but the dagger didn’t come until there were only three and a half minutes to play. Caroline Stedman ’12 used a spin move to get into the lane for a left-handed layup, but it didn’t fall this time (a rare miss for Stedman, who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player). Playing with four fouls, Lem Atanga McCormick ’12 battled for the offensive rebound and went back up with the ball, getting knocked back for a foul as her shot went through the rim to give Amherst a 12-point lead. That was the moment everyone in the arena knew with 100 percent certainty which team was going to win. The Amherst bench erupted. The coaches got out of serious mode, cracked smiles and fist-pumped. Kim Fiorentino ’12 jumped into Atanga McCormick’s arms. The Jeffs have provided their fans with a lot of great moments, but that one is in a league of its own.
With the 64-55 result, Amherst became the first NESCAC school to win the women’s basketball national title. It was the seventh NCAA team championship in school history. But you wouldn’t have known that on the plane back to the East Coast. Exhausted, the women sat quietly doing their homework. Some had class in less than 24 hours.
The fans celebrate
Photos by Tim Fuller