By Clay Andrews '13, Staff Writer
This time there were no bittersweet consolation games to play in. It was Championship all the way.

This time there were no disappointing three-point shooting performances. No overtime letdowns. No squandered chances. No haunting feeling of something left out on the court.

Junior guard Kim Fiorentino dribbled out the final seconds of Saturday’s Women’s Div. III National Championship Game to secure a 64-55 victory over Washington University in what is Amherst’s first-ever women’s basketball National Championship. Fittingly, the Jeffs had to overcome the Washington University Bears in the ultimate game after Amherst’s previous two seasons ended at the hands of the Bears in the National Semifinals.

“When the seconds were ticking down, you cannot describe the feeling you have,” reflected fourth-year Amherst Head Coach G. P. Gromacki. “It was a moment stopped in time that I will never forget. It was better than I have ever imagined.”

That moment was hard earned, as Washington University fought tough from the opening tip. Both teams struggled in the early going as they worked through the initial nerves of playing for a coveted title on a national stage. The score stuck at 7-5 in favor of Amherst for more than three and a half minutes, as neither team could find the nylon, before Amherst senior co-captain and recently named National Player of the Year Jaci Daigneault scored a layup halfway through the first half to start an Amherst run. In the next couple of minutes senior Kristyn Dunleavy sank a three and assisted a three-pointer from junior Lem Atanga McCormick. Junior Jackie Renner followed up with a jumper to give the Jeffs a 17-7 lead.

The Jeffs looked poised to run away with the game like they had in so many first halves this season, but Washington University responded, showing their mettle as a rightful championship opponent. Over the next three minutes, only the Bears were able to score as they clawed back with a 7-0 run. Junior and Tournament Most Outstanding Player Caroline Stedman finally put an end to Washington University’s scoring stretch with a three-pointer with just over two minutes left in the half. Stedman added a couple of layups to lead the Jeffs into halftime with the team’s last seven points of the half and a 24-20 lead.

The Bears came back from the break sharp, their patented post-halftime surges having proved to be Amherst’s undoing in the previous two matchups. With a quick three, a jumper and a made free throw, Washington University took the lead 26-24 in under four minutes into the second half. This Jeffs team wasn’t about to let this one get away.

Stedman gave the Bears about 17 seconds to savor their lead before hitting a jumper from behind the arc and reclaiming the advantage 27-26. After the Bears scored a layup minutes later to go back on top, the Jeffs again responded. This time Shannon Finucane ’12 made a 3-pointer, ending the Bears’ reign in just 18 seconds, the longest the Bears would hold a lead all game. Washington University held three leads in the game, lasting 16, 17 and 18 seconds respectively, totaling 51 seconds in the driver’s seat including a short-lived 3-2 lead inside the first five minutes. Amherst ended each of Washington University’s leads with a three-pointer.

The Jeffs played with a sense of urgency, and each time Washington University took the lead seemed to remind them of the disappointment of the last two seasons. “We stuck together and weren’t satisfied with just being there,” said Finucane. “We overcame injuries, lineup changes and the pressure to make it back. We overcame two losses to Washington University to finally get them for a championship. We wanted to win it all!”

The Bears did not give up. With eight minutes to go, a 3-pointer from Washington University’s Brianne Monahan tied the game at 39-39. Soon after, things were looking grim when McCormick picked up her fourth foul, joining Sarah Leyman ’11 as a Jeff at risk with four fouls. Amherst dug deep though, taking off on the final tide-shifting run with McCormick, Stedman and Fiorentino hitting a trio of huge threes. The Jeffs outscored the Bears 18-5 over the next several minutes to take a 57-44 lead. McCormick topped off the run with three and a half minutes remaining, making a jumper while drawing contact to secure a momentous three-point play. “We made some big plays. Many big 3-point shots.” said Coach Gromacki. “Caroline Stedman really carried us offensively at key moments, and Lem’s 3-point play was the back breaker!”

With the lead at 13, Washington University was soon forced to foul. The Bears sunk a few last-ditch 3-pointers, but Amherst made their free throws and ultimately Washington University was unable to make up the difference. As the last seconds ran off the clock, the scoreboard read Amherst 64, Washington University 55.

The game was truly a team effort, as the eight Lady Jeffs that played all scored at least one basket. Amherst’s depth and versatility had an enormous impact on the game since Daigneault, the Jeffs’ usual first offensive option, struggled from the floor with the extra attention Washington University paid her. Amherst was able to take advantage of the open space Daigneault’s presence created as the rest of the team stepped up and came through offensively for the Jeffs.

“I can’t even describe how great it feels to win a national championship,” rejoiced Fiorentino. “We have worked so hard this season for this and it feels great. It took a team effort to win. Everyone did whatever was needed. Our coach had us well prepared, we had clutch performances from the players off the bench, we showed great determination and we were lead by our terrific seniors.”

Fiorentino also played a crucial role in Amherst’s championship success as she had the task of guarding Div. III’s second all-time leading scorer in Christopher Newton University’s senior Chelsie Schweers in the National Semifinals. Fiorentino stifled the offensive juggernaut, holding her to just 7 of 23 shooting, a meager 30 percent from the field and keeping her a full 14 points below her tournament average of 33 points per game.

The Jeffs mostly coasted to the Final Four with comfortable wins over Husson, East Connecticut State, Muhlenberg and Babson, none of which were decided by less than 19 points. In the Final Four, Amherst defeated Chris Newport by 10.

“One of the biggest challenges we faced was pushing ourselves to be better every day,” said McCormick. “We had to make sure that we worked on all the little things, because in the end, that’s what really made the difference.”

There is no doubt all the little things paid off for the NESCAC’s first ever women’s NCAA National Champion. It was a well-deserved feat for a senior class that went 120-9 in its four years at Amherst. That record, achieved by Daigneault, Leyman, Dunleavy and Courtney Long, is the best ever by a senior class in Div. III women’s basketball history.

“It feels incredible and it’s so special to be the first National Championship team in program history,” reflected Leyman. “The feeling is so far beyond excitement and happiness. It felt better than I could have ever imagined.”

Issue 19, Submitted 2011-03-23 04:55:54