|Alicia Kutil and Mass-Dartmouth made it to the Elite Eight last season.
Mass-Dartmouth athletics photo by Paris Felogloy
By Matthew Noonan
Alicia Kutil remembers the moment quite vividly.
She was standing on the historic hardwood of LeFrak Gymnasium in Amherst, Massachusetts, last March, sharing a laugh with her teammate and classmate Chelsea Houlihan. The two smirked about their team’s early deficit – the Corsairs were trailing Amherst, 9-0, in the opening minutes of the 2017 NCAA Division III sectional finals.
“Chelsea and I looked at each other and we kind of laughed,” she said. “We were like, ‘wow, they’re really good.’
“When we started the game, we had confidence in ourselves (because) we had upset a couple teams (prior to facing Amherst on this particular evening), so we thought ‘why not us?’”
Unfortunately, this game, a 73-33 loss, was the final stop for the Corsairs, who entered last year’s NCAA Tournament as an at-large bid after losing to Keene State in the Little East Conference semifinals.
The loss to the Owls – not an easy one to swallow – left the team contemplating their play on both ends of the hardwood.
Luckily, those doubts quickly vanished two days later when they learned their season was not over as UMass Dartmouth earned its first-ever invite to the ‘big dance’ as an at-large bid. And the Corsairs played some inspired basketball, including a second-round upset win at Montclair State, which left the squad eager for another attempt to snatch the school’s initial national crown this season.
“Obviously, we were kind of bummed because I thought we could have made it a better game, so there was a little bit of disappointment (amongst the team), but I was so proud of how far we had made it,” said Kutil, who concluded her team’s final game of the 2016-17 season with 10 points and four rebounds.
“(Following the game), I was thinking about the (program’s) future, knowing that we were only losing (Adi Alicea-Cordero and Rachel McCarron), but bringing back the Little East Conference Player of the Year (Nakira Examond), so I knew that we could do great things and knew what we could expect out of ourselves (in the coming year).”
Those expectations, especially for this current group of Corsairs, couldn’t be higher – they entered the season as their conference’s top team (or squad to beat), while receiving preseason recognition from D3hoops.com on the women’s basketball Top 25 poll (they checked in at 18th overall after finishing last season in the 21st position in the final poll).
Additionally, the team’s magical run put a target on the squad’s back, but luckily, the team adheres to the constant advice and input from fourth-year coach Matt Ducharme, a UMass Dartmouth alum, who channeled New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick by saying, “We strive to be the best team that we are capable of being.”
As of Monday, UMass Dartmouth certainly appears to be one of the best teams, especially in the LEC, however, they certainly know UMass Boston and Southern Maine are right behind them.
The plan: keep the focus on today, not tomorrow – sounds like Belichick, eh?
Said Ducharme, “The only games that matters to us is the next one. I know it sounds very (Belichick of me), but it has to be how we think. Otherwise, we could get ourselves in trouble.”
And keeping the focus on today instead of tomorrow is certainly helping these Corsairs remain in position to win the program’s first-ever LEC crown. The squad has competed in the conference’s postseason tournament for the last 14 seasons, but has never come away with some hardware. Perhaps, this is the year they break through, win it and then advance to the national tournament as an automatic qualifier? It would be a first for these Corsairs.
As the season began, Ducharme noticed something different about this year’s squad, they seemed to be more resilient, but also willing to learn from difficult setbacks, too. And two of those setbacks came in the opening month of the season when UMass Dartmouth struggled against both Bowdoin College and Roger Williams.
“Losing to Roger Williams – that could have been a big setback for us because they’re a good team – but we picked ourselves up, moved forward and then we get a rough game against Bowdoin, but again, you get crushed by a team on their home floor and a very good team,” said Ducharme.
“But we bounced back,” he added.
Indeed, UMass Dartmouth bounced back, sweeping its December slate (Plymouth State, Westfield State, Western Connecticut and Johnson & Wales) before winning a quartet of early January contests. The streak concluded, however, on Jan. 15 when Tufts came to campus and came away with an important non-conference win (74-66). The setback could have de-railed Ducharme’s crew once again, but instead, they pushed forward - just like they did following their losses to Bowdoin and Roger Williams.
UMass Dartmouth would return to the win column two days later, earning an important win over UMass Boston, which entered the contest with a streak of their own. And since then, the Corsairs have been on a roll, winning five in a row, including a Monday evening clash against Williams.
Things seem to be clicking for the Corsairs, who have six games remaining on their regular season slate. The goal, of course, is to win the LEC crown and earn a return trip to the NCAA Tournament – Kutil hopes to earn an automatic invite, not an at-large to the big dance, which is certainly an attainable goal for this year’s UMass Dartmouth squad.
“We are really determined (to get to the LEC finals) and we don’t want to rely on getting to the tournament through an at-large bid like we did last year because we want to get there by winning the LEC,” she said. “I definitely would say determination (is the word we use currently) because for us there is no other option. And I think that has what helped us play so well this year.”
Growth and determination – two words to use when describing these Corsairs. And perhaps it was those two words that came to their minds following last year’s sectional final setback to Amherst on the ride home. Or maybe, it was an inspiring halftime speech from Chelsea Houlihan, which laid the ground work for more success this season and beyond.
These Corsairs don’t appear to be leaving the New England women’s basketball radar anytime soon.