Worth the Wait
Photo by Tim Fuller
Saturday, Mar. 19
Maybe it was the loss to Kean back in January. Or maybe it was the fear of losing to the same team three years in a row. It might have even been the fact that the infamous “SID Curse” was finally lifted. Whatever the reason, the Amherst women’s basketball team was able to storm through Bloomington and leave little doubt as to who’s the best in Division III.
Against Muhlenberg in the Sweet 16, people wondered how Amherst would stop Alexandra Chili, a dominant player who had led the Mules to a pair of miraculous wins in the first rounds of the NCAA Tournament. The Jeffs then held her to seven points and didn’t let her attempt a field goal in the second half. In the Elite Eight people wondered how Amherst would handle undefeated Babson’s size. The Jeffs then out-rebounded the Beavers by 13 and removed the “undefeated” tag without breaking a sweat. In the national semifinals people wondered how Amherst would stop Chelsie Schweers, who was averaging roughly 150 points per tournament game. The Jeffs then frustrated her for 40 minutes and beat Christopher Newport by 10.
By the time Amherst got to the national championship game, it was obvious that 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 Jeffs had lost to Wash-U in back-to-back Final Fours and had yet to prove they could win on the big stage. Wash-U had won more NCAA Tournament games and national titles than any other Division III school. Wash-U brought cheerleaders, a rowdy and confident crowd, and an army of assistant coaches (eight, someone said). 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 (I don’t think David was 31-1 when he went up against Goliath), but there were a lot of reasons to put your money on Wash-U.
But just as Amherst had found a way to beat Muhlenberg, Babson and Christopher Newport, it was clear from the beginning of Saturday’s championship game that the Jeffs knew exactly how to beat Wash-U. The Bears never stood a chance. That isn’t to say they weren’t a good team (as GP noted in the 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. For the second time in as many days, the Jeffs played the epitome of a “team game.”
The coolest moment of Saturday’s game is probably also the coolest moment of the season, considering the circumstances. Amherst led for the final 14:17 of the game, but the dagger didn’t come until there were only three and a half minutes to play. Steds used a spin move to get into the lane for her patented lefty jumper/lay-up/floater, but it didn’t fall this time (a rare miss for Steds, who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player). Playing with four fouls, Lem 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 finally got out of serious mode, cracked smiles and fist-pumped. Kim jumped into Lem’s arms. The Jeffs have provided their fans with a lot of great moments, but that one is in a league of its own.
There are so many incredible stats and records from this year's team that there's no point in trying to sum everything up in words. You could spend an hour describing how good this team is, but you really just have to see them play firsthand. Defending the title won’t be easy for the Jeffs, who will have to say goodbye to a truly exceptional senior class (120-9 in four years). With so many great players returning, though, and with GP leading the way, they will still likely be the preseason favorite to win it all. Needless to say, next November Amherst will have a pretty big target on its back. But in the meantime, the Lord Jeffs will have a pretty big trophy in their display case, and nobody can take it away.
Thanks for a great season.
An Amherst Fan's Thoughts on the Morning of the NCAA Championship...
#10) Last year we learned that coming in third is better than coming in fourth—way better. After a heartbreaking overtime loss to Wash-U the Amherst players picked themselves up and beat the University of Rochester. Not the goal they wanted, but a great showing.
#9) I could say that this year we learned that playing for the championship is better than coming in third. But let’s be honest—we knew that last year. But it bears repeating. Playing for the championship is better than coming in third.
#8) Amherst College isn’t quite like the other teams in the tournament. We don’t have a pep band. We don’t have hundreds or thousands of screaming fans, faces painted, ready to cheer their team on. But our fans are loyal and knowledgeable. Come sit in our section and listen to the conversation. Trust me, you will learn some things about the game.
#7) Another way Amherst College is different was manifest at the banquet on Thursday night. Every team had a player or three come to the podium to give a short talk. The purpose? To tell the audience about your school and your team and what it means to be here. Our spokeswomen (Jaci and Sarah) just “nailed” this talk. Funny, honest and spontaneous. They went first. The next speakers began their talk with, “hard act to follow.” They were right.
#6) 7-for-23 and three foul shots. This, in my mind, was the key stat from last night’s victory over Christopher Newport. The Amherst women, especially #14 Kim Fiorentino, held Chelsea Schweers, the top scorer in the country, to 19 points. Yes, she was the CNU top scorer last night. But this is a player who averaged over 30 points per game throughout the tournament. Keeping her under 20 was the key to the game. Trust me, Chelsea Schweers was not the same player in the second half last night as the first. She was boxed in all night and couldn’t get to her favorite spots. You could see it in her body language. We had her number and she knew it.
#5) 9-for-10. Another key stat from last night. When Amherst needed to, the players sank their free throw shots. With the game on the line Jackie Renner and Kristyn Dunleavy calmly stepped to the line and sank shot after shot, most of them all-net. It seemed that CNU had decided Jackie and Kristyn were the players to foul last night. Wrong. In the first practice of the season GP had the players doing a free throw drill for which the consequence of every missed shot was a wind sprint. He said to the players that day, “this is what it takes to win a championship.” Four and a half months later those wind sprints paid off.
#4) I have watched Sarah Leyman play for four years and I have never seen a “layup” like last night. We were ahead by 10 and time was running down in the game, but we knew CNU could score points and score them quickly. The game did not feel secure. Sarah drives to the right side of the basket and starts to shoot a layup as she gets totally hammered by the defense. So hammered that she is absolutely horizontal to the floor and seemingly only a foot off it as the shot leaves her hand. And by golly it goes in. So now this is my #1 favorite Sarah Leyman shot of the year. Sarah picks herself up, gives her trademark arm pump and calmly sinks the foul shot.
#3) It is early in the game, CNU is up 11-2 and our shooting is off. Way off. None of our starters quite has a rhythm yet. Lem Atanga McCormick enters the game and proceeds to sink a three-point shot, looking just as calm and cool as a player can look. On the next play she drives to the basket and sinks a two. The team seems to relax. We can win this game.
#2) GP Gromacki is a great coach. He always has his team prepared. Always. In yesterday morning’s walkthrough he had the team practice breaking the full court press. In a 60-minute practice they spent 20 minutes working on multiple strategies to break the press. CNU pressed earlier than perhaps the team expected, but press they did. After a few nervous trips down the floor, all that practice snapped in. Press after press was broken. Pretty soon…no more press.
#1) Two teams get police escorts to the game tonight. Amherst is one of those teams. Wash-U the other. This is a sign of what it means to play for a championship. Go Lord Jeffs.
~ Molly Mead
One More to Go...
Friday, Mar. 18
If you doubted the Lord Jeffs at any point during Friday’s semifinal game, you should have known better.
Amherst has been known to put a game or two out of reach before the other team scores a single point. There are times, however, when the Jeffs stumble out of the gate. When this happens, opposing fans can’t help but think they’re about to witness an upset. In those cases it’s the same routine every time: Amherst gets off to a slow start, the other team builds an early lead, Amherst calls a timeout, and post-game celebration plans are already being discussed by whoever the Jeffs are playing. Then, in the blink of an eye, the Jeffs are no longer stumbling. Not only are they catching up, they’re pulling ahead, and the fans who were just thinking about the potential upset go silent as they try to figure out what just happened. It never gets old.
So, when Christopher Newport scored the first five points of Friday’s semifinal game, it was perfect. When the Captains took an 11-2 lead and forced Amherst into a timeout? Even better. (If you were worried at this point, shame on you.) As the CNU band played and the Captains high-fived each other, every fan wearing blue was likely thinking the same thing: Amherst isn’t so great. Then, making it look easy, Amherst put together a 10-0 run and took control of the game. The Jeffs took the lead with 8:45 left in the first half and never gave it back. They didn’t put the game out of reach until the final five minutes of regulation, but they never hinted that they were going to lose, either. The slow start was a thing of the past. Classic Amherst.
Friday’s win was the epitome of a team effort. Steds was the best player on the court in the first half. Lem and Shannon hit crucial threes early on to keep the team in it. Kristyn came off the bench and put the team on her back in the final eight minutes. Jackie ran the point to perfection and didn’t sweat the full-court pressure. Jaci and Sarah picked up huge offensive rebounds to keep plays alive. Kim guarded the nation’s leading scorer like her life depended on it. The award for “Coolest Shot of the Night” hands-down goes to Sarah for the oh-my-God-I-can’t-believe-that-just-went-in heave that gave Amherst a 13-point lead with 2:07 to go, but Friday’s MVP award isn’t so obvious.
When the game ended, there wasn’t much of a celebration on the court. The goal at the beginning of the season wasn’t to beat Christopher Newport in the semifinals. The goal was—and still is—to win the program's first national championship. As the team said in the post-game press conference, tomorrow is the big one. And who better to play in the finals than Wash-U? The Bears have won more NCAA Tournament games and more national titles than any other team in Division III history, and they’ve crushed the Jeffs’ title hopes in each of the past two years. Just like the Red Sox had to go through the Yankees to get over their World Series hump, it’s fitting that the Lord Jeffs can’t win their first national title without having to go through the Bears.
Saturday’s title game should be a great one, so be sure to tune in at 8 p.m. (EST). (And if you're doubting the Lord Jeffs, you should know better.)
A Great Day for Amherst
Thursday, Mar. 17
The Lord Jeffs finally got to set foot on Illinois Wesleyan’s Shirk Center floor when they were the first of the four teams to practice Thursday morning. Of the four semifinalists, Amherst traveled the farthest to get to Bloomington. The 1,000+ miles of traveling didn’t seem to affect the players, who made 95 percent of the shots they took (rough estimate) in the first 10 minutes. Practice was interrupted for 5-10 minutes by a loud alarm and flashing lights, a result of somebody exiting through a door they weren’t supposed to exit through. (Well played, Illinois Wesleyan.) Coach Gromacki wasn’t fazed, though, and the Lord Jeffs kept on doing what they’ve been doing since November. After practice, Jaci, Sarah, Lem, Kim and Coach handled the press conference with ease, even though nobody in Bloomington seems able to correctly pronounce any of their names.
After lunch the team headed to Cedar Ridge Elementary School, which everyone thought was much nicer than the elementary schools they recall attending. Most of the children actually remembered Amherst from the 2010 Final Four, although most of them still had no idea what a “Lord Jeff” is (most Amherst students don’t, either). The players answered questions ranging from “What’s your favorite subject?” to “Do you get paid to play basketball?” Amherst handled the questions well and gave some thoughtful answers, but the kids seemed most interested in the fact that Shannon’s favorite color is blue and that Courtney can speak Spanish.
The Amherst players signed autographs, swapped high-fives, and even played a little basketball with the kids in the gym for 10 minutes or so. (Lem blocked 16 shots and Shannon had eight steals simply out of habit.) After wishing everyone a Happy St. Patrick’s Day, the Jeffs headed back to the hotel to soak in some Division I March Madness in the hospitality room before watching the DIII variety in preparation for Friday’s and Saturday’s games.
The NCAA Final Four Banquet is the highlight of the week (other than the games), and Amherst stole the show in 2011. Each team was to choose a player or group of players who could give a speech, perform a skit or tell a story that paints an accurate picture of what their school represents. Even though the Illinois Wesleyan squad won style points with a “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” rap (with Midwest lyrics), Jaci and Sarah stood out as crowd favorites. Without going into detail, it was like when one group knocks a presentation out of the park to the point where the other groups in class look at each other and know they’re in trouble. Very well done.
Jaci was the highlight of the night, however, as she was named to the Division III All-America Team for the second time in her career. Even the kids at Cedar Ridge could have seen that coming, but the Lord Jeffs were ecstatic when Jaci was also recognized as the Division III National Player of the Year. Her list of accomplishments is a mile long, but being the first person in program history to be named National Player of the Year sums it up nicely.
The end of the banquet marked the end of the night’s events, as everyone parted ways to catch some more March Madness before turning in. The Lord Jeffs will have a shoot-around in the morning but aren’t scheduled to play their semifinal game until 5 p.m. (6 p.m. EST). They’ll face a challenging task in trying to guard the leading scorer in Division III, but they’ve been to this dance before. Be sure to tune in as Amherst attempts to advance to its first-ever national title game.
Welcome to Bloomington (Again)
Wednesday, Mar. 16
It’s cliché, but it feels like just yesterday Amherst welcomed Jaci Daigneault ’11, Kristyn Dunleavy ’11, Sarah Leyman ’11, Courtney Long ’11 and GP Gromacki to the women’s basketball program. The Lord Jeffs had never played in the NCAA Tournament prior to that time, and fans didn’t know what to expect for the 2007-08 season. Nearly four years later, the Jeffs are in Bloomington, Ill., to compete for a national title as a Division III powerhouse.
The 2011 Final Four experience got off to a fine start—the bus ride to Bradley Airport and the two-and-a-half-hour plane ride to Chicago were a breeze. After shattering the world record for “least amount of time spent at the baggage claim,” the team piled onto a second bus to depart for Bloomington. There was a brief debate over which movie to watch, but the final selection naturally involved basketball and Queen Latifah, two necessary components of any great film.
Making a quick stop for dinner in the town of Pontiac, the team was ecstatic about temperatures in the 60s, something Amherst hasn’t seen in far too long. A great meal was accompanied by one member of the travel party sharing his questionable taste in movies, while another got his money’s worth out of Wikipedia in order to impress the rest of the group with fun facts about Pontiac. The ride from the restaurant to the hotel went by in a flash thanks to some intense rounds of “Catch Phrase,” as the team rolled into Bloomington at 7:45 Central Time.
First on the agenda was a gathering with the other three teams to be entertained by a hypnotist. Four Amherst players were brave enough to participate in the event, but only one made it through to the end. Along the way she and several highly entertaining individuals put on quite the show, doing anything from worrying about where they misplaced their belly buttons, to dancing like nobody was watching. Friday’s and Saturday’s games are supposed to be intense, but it will be difficult to take seriously a player who kicked off her Final Four weekend by repeatedly telling a hypnotist—in perfect Hebrew—to shut up. (In her defense, she was hypnotized.)
The players eventually came back to reality to bring the first night’s entertainment to an end, but Thursday will feature plenty of activities to keep teams busy. After breakfast, team pictures and practice, Amherst will head to Cedar Ridge Elementary School to attend a pep rally and spend time with local children. Thursday night will feature the annual NCAA Banquet, from which Amherst will hope to take some significant individual awards. Check back Thursday night for photos, videos and more updates from the trip.