|Amherst celebrates its second consecutive Division III women's basketball national championship and a 66-game winning streak.
Photo by Cory Chuchna, d3photography.com
By Gordon Mann
ROCHESTER, Minn. -- This is a public service announcement for Division III women’s basketball teams heading into the offseason.
When you get ready to play Amherst next season, when you try to snap the Mammoths’ 66-game winning streak, you need to know one thing.
At some point in your game against Amherst, you’re not going to score. You’re not going to score for a while and they are.
It doesn’t matter how good you are. Whether you have All-Americans in the post, on the perimeter or at point guard. You might have more than one All-American.
You aren’t going to score.
It’s going to be scary. Passing lanes are going to disappear. You’re going to retreat behind the three-point line and they are going to follow you. You’ll start to settle for desperate heaves or hope-filled runners that bounce of the glass.
It will feel like Amherst is playing with seven instead of five, like their players who already have length and speed are getting taller and quicker. Like you’re being squashed beneath the suffocating weight of, well, a Mammoth.
The question is: When you finally wriggle free from Amherst's defensive clutches and score, will you still have a chance to win the game? The answer this season was no.
- Game recap: Amherst defeats Bowdoin 65-45 for second title
- Semifinal coverage: Amherst 66, Thomas More 48 | Bowdoin 90, Wartburg 62
- D3hoops.com 2018 women's basketball All-America team
- Final 2018 women's basketball bracket
- Road to Rochester feature: Mammoths focused on defense, not title defense
Amherst head coach G.P. Gromacki sat at the podium in the Mayo Civic Center after his team defeated NESCAC rival Bowdoin 65-45 to win its second straight national championship. He had a championship cap on his head and another Walnut and Bronze trophy to his right.
“To be in front of you right now with a national championship, it’s just an unbelievable feeling,” he said. “[My players] fought through thick and thin, and at times it didn’t look so good [this weekend]. It’s a special group that was the most resilient team I’ve ever coached.”
Hold on – Amherst hasn’t lost a game in two seasons. What type of resilience do the Mammoths need?
“It just seems like there were so many times during the season that we weren’t blowing every one out. People thought we would lose the game and every time they stepped up and made a play,” Gromacki said gesticulating at his players.
When the season opened, Amherst was not the prohibitive favorite to win another title, mostly because they graduated three starters – 2017 All-American Ali Doswell, her sister Meredith and four-year starting point guard Jamie Renner. The Mammoths certainly weren’t an afterthought – they were slotted third in the preseason and had more No. 1 votes than any other team.
But there were times this year and this weekend when the Mammoths looked vulnerable. And it didn’t seem fathomable that their run of soul-crushing defensive performances would continue, not in the NCAA Tournament.
In the first game of the weekend, Amherst played Thomas More which entered the weekend averaging more than 80 points a game and had two stars in Madison Temple and Abby Owings. Temple is a first team All-American swing player who can score inside and out. Owings is lightning-quick and a three-time All-American.
|There's no such thing as an uncontested shot against Amherst.
Photo by Cory Chuchna, d3photography.com
Amherst must’ve remembered how much its length frustrated Thomas More when the teams last met in the 2016 national semifinals and the Saints beat Amherst, 74-65. So Gromacki assigned 6-1 forward Hannah Hackley to cover 5-2 point guard Owings.
“Going in that was the matchup from the day we knew we were playing Thomas More. Hannah can guard a lot of people. We felt that, with her length and her athleticism, she can stay with her.”
Owings finished with two points on 1-for-12 shooting in 35 minutes. Whenever she did managed to get past Hackley, there was a wall of defenders waiting to pick up the assignment.
And Owings was not alone in her struggles. Consider:
- Montclair State’s first-team All-American Katie Sire was held to eight points on eight shot attempts in Amherst’s 51-40 win vs. the Red Hawks in the NCAA Tournament sectional semifinals.
- Rochester’s second-team All-American Alexandra Leslie was held scoreless with just four field goal attempts in 37 minutes in the NCAA Tournament sectional finals, which Amherst won 62-38.
- Trine’s second-team All-American Brandi Dawson scored just three points and went 0-for-11 from the field against Amherst in the Mammoths' 41-36 win at the D3hoops.com Classic.
Hackley, like most of the Mammoths, was too modest in describing her success. “[Owings] is an amazing player, an All-American, she really can do it all,” Hackley explains. “The help defense, the scrambling behind me really, we were able to shut her down.”
And, like most Mammoths, Hackley is a versatile defender whose length, foot speed and intuition allows Gromacki to use her wherever he needs her. In Friday night’s 66-48 win over Thomas More he used Hackley, a power forward in other games, to guard a point guard. In Saturday’s win over Bowdoin, he positioned Emma McCarthy, who played guard at Division I Fairfield, in the low post as his center.
McCarthy finished the weekend as the Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, but it’s how she started each game that mattered most. Thomas More jumped out to a 5-0 lead early in Friday’s semifinal, only to see McCarthy score 10 straight points and give the Mammoths the lead for good.
Saturday’s game against Bowdoin started out much the same way. The Polar Bears got four points from Cordellia Stewart in the post and took the early lead. Amherst was scoreless heading into the first media break. It looked like the Bowdoin team that put up 90 points on Wartburg the night before was going to find ways to score. And then McCarthy scored eight straight points for the Mammoths.
|Emma McCarthy scored 25 points in Amherst's title-clinching victory.
Photo by Cory Chuchna, d3photography.com
“She wanted the ball. That was a big help,” Gromacki said of McCarthy after the game. “She’s not one to shy from any type of challenge and she made the plays time after time.”
McCarthy is emblematic of the Mammoths’ success this season. She is long, strong and talented, but her offensive output doesn’t burst out of the box score every game. She averaged 10.3 points overall, but on Saturday night she looked like Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Amherst repeatedly fed her the ball in the post, watched her take a few quick, big steps to the left or the right, and either blow past the defender for a layup or crane a shot off the glass for two.
McCarthy is quick to deflect credit to her teammates who are quick to deflect it back to her.
“This game encompassed what [Emma] has done for us all season, whether it be through leadership, helping everyone out,” said Hannah Fox. “She knows all of our plays, all of our opponents’ plays like the back of her hand.”
And there’s plenty of talented players to share the credit.
Fox sat on the bench and watched most of last year’s championship run, playing 11.3 minutes per game and biding her time behind Renner. Then this year she stepped into a starting role, and the Mammoths kept rolling.
“We knew, with Hannah coming in, she had a lot of talent. The problem was we had a great point guard in Jamie Renner, who meant a lot to our program and started since her freshman year,” Gromacki explained.
“This year we handed the keys to [Hannah]. She didn’t hesitate or blink an eye. She took the role, right off the bat. She’s a really confident player with a lot of talent and the team will play for her.”
Fox had what may have been the play of the game against Thomas More on Friday night.
With the game still in question at 45-41, the Mammoths caught a break when a Thomas More pass appeared to bounce off an Amherst player’s foot. Instead of it being called a kicked ball, play continued. Fox dove for the loose ball, grabbed it and called time out. Then, coming out of that break, she hit a crushing 3-pointer from the top of the key to stake Amherst to a 48-41 lead. That was part of an 11-2 run that put the game out of reach.
Similarly, Amherst secured the victory in Saturday’s championship game by holding Bowdoin without a field goal for 10 minutes. It looked like the Polar Bears might wriggle out from under the Mammoths’ defensive weight when Abby Kelly hit a three pointer from the right wing. But the officials called a three-second violation, waived the basket off and Amherst immediately countered with a McCarthy basket at the other end.
By the time Bowdoin finally scored again, it was a 20-point Amherst lead and the game was over.
“I’ll give them a lot of credit. They’re an amazing defensive team,” Bowdoin coach Adrienne Shibles said afterward. "They have great length. They defended up on the perimeter exceptionally well. When we tried to get into the paint, they stepped up and helped. I credit their defense a lot.”
Amherst’s joy is everyone else’s pain in Division III women’s basketball.
McCarthy finished her final year of athletic eligibility and will probably return next season to help coach the team, after she finishes a semester in Rome. Hackley will graduate and so will Jackie Nagle who played a handful of important minutes at the end of the first half when McCarthy got into foul trouble.
But Fox is back for a couple more years. She’s just a sophomore. So is Cam Hendricks who was matched up with Temple on Friday night and Kerrigan on Saturday. So is Madeline Eck who was first-team all-conference and All-Region.
And no doubt Gromacki will find more players to continue this run. Amherst’s academics plus three national championships makes for a compelling recruiting pitch, even more so in Gromacki’s masterful program-building hands.
The only question is: When the rest of Division III finally wriggles out from under the Mammoth’s crushing weight, how many championships will Amherst have?