How 'Bout a Rematch?

Contact: Justin Long

Amherst will get a chance to avenge its only loss of
2011 when Kean University comes to town this Tuesday.

AMHERST, Mass. – If members of the Amherst women’s basketball team circled only one game on their calendars during the offseason, I’m guessing this Tuesday’s showdown with Kean University was it.

Last January Amherst faced Kean for the first time in program history, and it proved to be a memorable introduction. (Quick sidebar: it’s pronounced “Cane,” not “Keen.”) The Lord Jeffs led for the first 25 minutes, but they had to overcome an eight-point deficit to force overtime. Amherst then shot 2-for-14 in the extra period, giving the Cougars an 85-82 upset over the top-ranked team in Division III.

Amherst hasn’t lost since.

The Jeffs responded to their setback at Kean by winning their next 19 games en route to the program’s first-ever NCAA title. They began the 2011-12 season as the top-ranked team in Division III and have made their case by winning their first 14 games. Only six unbeaten teams remain in the country.

But don’t count on Kean being intimidated by Amherst. The Cougars (15-2) aren’t ranked nationally in the latest poll, but you can bet they’ll make a big jump after they handed sixth-ranked William Paterson its first loss of the season on Saturday (88-84 OT). Kean is in the midst of a nine-game winning streak and is maintaining its status as one of the best Division III programs of the past 10 years.  

Amherst fans will get a chance to see Naimah Clemons ’13, who may be the most talented player the Jeffs will face all year. In last year’s meeting the 5’9 guard had 28 points and eight rebounds, and this season she is among the national leaders in scoring (24.9 ppg) and field goal percentage (.589). Clemons was Kean’s leading scorer in 12 of the first 13 games of the year and has eclipsed 30 points four times.

Amherst is riding a 33-game winning streak.

Kean has proven it is far more than a one-woman show by winning three of its past four without Clemons in the lineup. Eight Cougars are averaging at least 5.0 points per game, five are averaging 5.0 or more rebounds, and five finished in double figures against William Paterson. Clemons returned to score 22 points in Saturday’s upset, but it was 5’7 guard Brittany Powell ’12 who led the way with 25.

Joining Clemons and Powell to form an outstanding guard trio is Noel Mathis, a 5’7 senior who recorded 22 points and nine steals in a recent win over Rowan. Mathis can do it all, as she averages 9.3 points, 5.9 assists, 5.4 steals and 5.1 rebounds per outing. Rounding out the starting five are Simone Smith ’13 (6’0) and Danielle McFadden ’12 (5’11), who combine for 16.8 points and 12.1 rebounds per game.

The Jeffs will be facing more athleticism and defensive intensity than they will see all season. This year’s starters were a combined 13-for-48 (.271) and committed 12 turnovers against Kean last year, and the Cougars are once again among the national leaders in steals per game. Shannon Finucane ’12 and Jackie Renner ’12 have combined for 6.6 assists per game with an assist-to-turnover ratio of nearly 3-to-1, as Amherst entered last weekend committing the fewest turnovers per game in Division III.

With Finucane and Renner distributing the ball, the Jeffs have been able to overwhelm teams with a relentless offense. Jasmine Hardy ’13 has helped Amherst stretch defenses by shooting 65.4 percent from long range since Dec. 28. Kim Fiorentino ’12 and Caroline Stedman ’12 will match Kean’s athleticism, as they have combined for 21.5 points, 9.9 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game. Fiorentino stood out against Kean last year by recording 12 points, eight boards, four steals and three assists.

Opponents are shooting 26.2 percent against Amherst this season.

Amherst has been equally efficient in the paint as of late. Lem Atanga McCormick ’12, Bridget Crowley ’13 and Megan Robertson ’15 were a combined 30-for-37 (.811) in last week’s two wins, giving the Jeffs 32.0 points and 13.0 rebounds per night despite seeing limited action. Atanga McCormick will look for that consistency after shooting 7-for-21 against Kean last year, a game in which she finished with 18 points, seven rebounds and three blocks.

Although Amherst’s offense is firing on all cylinders, its defense has stolen the show. The Jeffs have held eight teams below 40 points and have allowed only two to put up more than 45. In their past seven games they are holding opponents to a mere 21.1 percent shooting. Amherst is allowing more than 10.0 points per game fewer than it did through the first 14 of last season, having also seen drastic drops in opponents’ field goal percentage (.331 to .262) and opponents’ three-point shooting (.352 to .150).

The Jeffs will be in unfamiliar territory if Tuesday’s game is as close as last year’s meeting was. Whereas each of the Cougars’ past five wins has come by five points or fewer, the Jeffs lead Division III in margin of victory by a landslide (+38.7). Each of Amherst’s wins has come by at least 21 points, including five games that resulted in a victory of more than 50 points.

Amherst has won 33 consecutive games and is 82-1 in LeFrak Gymnasium under Coach Gromacki, as an impressive 57-game home win streak will be on the line this Tuesday. Be sure to come out and support the Jeffs as they attempt to keep that streak alive before heading out on a seven-game road trip. Tip-off is set for 6 p.m., and admission is free to all.

Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2012 * 6 p.m.
LeFrak Gymnasium (Amherst, Mass.)

#1 Amherst (14-0) vs. Kean (15-2)