BLOOMINGTON, IL – For the first time in Amherst College history, the Lord Jeffs are champions of Division III women's basketball.
The third time was indeed a charm for the Jeffs (32-1), who earned a 64-55 win over Washington University in St. Louis Saturday evening at the Illinois Wesleyan University Shirk Center. Amherst lost to the Bears in the semifinals of the 2009 and 2010 national tournaments but used exceptional defense and another outstanding team effort to prevent them from claiming a sixth national title.
Kim Fiorentino '12 (Holmdel, NJ) led a tenacious defensive effort on Friday and Saturday, but it was her three-pointer from the left wing with four minutes remaining in the title game that all but wrapped up the tournament. When Lem Atanga McCormick '12 (Chicago, IL) followed with a three-point play to make it a 57-44 game with 3:30 on the clock, the Amherst fans who traveled more than 1,000 miles to see their Jeffs in action began to taste victory.
The final three minutes saw Amherst free throws being countered by Washington three-pointers, but the Bears never got closer than eight points. A free throw by Jaci Daigneault '11 (Guilford, CT) with 33 seconds to go marked the final point of the game, and after a Washington turnover Amherst was able to run out the clock as the Lord Jeffs stormed the court and celebrated their remarkable season with confetti raining down from above.
Daigneault and Caroline Stedman '12 (Walpole, MA) were each named to the All-Tournament Team, with Stedman also earning Most Outstanding Player honors. Stedman scored 18 points in the semifinals and added 19 in the championship, shooting 15-for-29 from the field along the way. Daigneault totaled 17 points and 18 rebounds in the two games, adding five blocks and three steals.
Amherst is the first NESCAC school to win the women's basketball national title and is only the second school from New England to accomplish the feat in the 30-year history of the tournament (Salem State, 1986). This is the seventh national team championship in school history, as Amherst has earned an NCAA crown in five consecutive academic years.
The Lord Jeffs didn't trail for the final 15:31 of the opening half after Fiorentino hit a pull-up three to give her team an early 5-3 lead, but both teams struggled to find points in the game's first 20 minutes. Amherst didn't receive any favorable bounces despite getting good looks from everywhere on the court, but the Jeffs were able to stay in the game thanks to tough defense.
A 12-2 run gave Amherst a 17-7 lead with just over six minutes to go, but the Bears countered by scoring the next seven points to bring their fans to life. Just as things seemed to be slipping away from the Jeffs, a big steal by Daigneault led directly to a three from Stedman, who then added a layup after a Washington miss to make it a 24-14 game. The Bears would net the final five points of the half, as Amherst carried a 24-20 lead into the locker room with each team shooting below 30 percent.
A three-pointer by Kathryn Berger and four quick points from Alex Hoover opened the scoring in the second half, as the Bears put together a 12-0 run that gave them a 26-25 advantage. Stedman hit a pivotal three from the left wing on a kick-out by Leyman to hand the lead right back to the Jeffs, and the next few minutes featured a tug-of-war.
Shannon Finucane '12 (Cortland, NY) connected on two three-pointers in a span of three minutes to give Amherst a 35-29 advantage with 11:16 to play, and the Bears would not regain the lead the rest of the way. The game could have slipped away from Amherst when Atanga McCormick picked up her fourth foul with 7:21 to go, with Leyman already sitting on the bench with four fouls of her own. Rather than back down, Atanga McCormick buried a three from the right wing to bring the score to 44-39.
After a Washington free throw, Stedman knocked down another three from the left wing to cause the Amherst bench to erupt, and Fiorentino followed with a nice drive to the hole after a turnover, as the Jeffs held a 49-40 lead with 5:49 remaining in regulation.
Hoover and Berger combined for four quick points to cut the Bears' deficit to five (49-44), but that's as close as close as Washington would get. Jackie Renner '12 (Newton, MA) hit a pair of free throws and Fiorentino and Atanga McCormick took charge from there to help Amherst pull away for the 64-55 win.
Amherst shot only 34.3 percent overall but knocked down 10 three-pointers, including a 6-for-10 performance from downtown in the second half. The Jeffs did not attempt a single free throw in the first half and took only two in the first 15:27 of the second period, but they would go 8-for-10 at the line in the final 4:33. The Bears shot 36.2 percent overall and were 15-of-26 on free throws.
Stedman's 19 points paced the Amherst scoring, with Fiorentino adding 10 and Daigneault and Atanga McCormick chipping in with nine apiece. Renner had another well-rounded performance, totaling six points, five assists, five rebounds and two blocks as a key contributor off the bench. The Lord Jeffs held a 26-13 edge in rebounds in the second half, including a 12-3 advantage in offensive boards.
Berger had 11 points, 10 rebounds and three steals to lead the Bears, who also got 13 points from Dani Hoover and 12 from Brianne Monahan.
In addition to matching the highest single-season win total and best record in program history, the Lord Jeffs set program records for points (2,547) and scoring average (77.2 ppg), besting both marks that were set a year ago.
Amherst's Class of 2011 finishes with 120 wins and only nine losses (.930), marking the highest win total for one team in any four-year span in the history of Division III women's basketball. Leyman played in all 129 of Amherst's games since she joined the program, with Saturday's appearance giving her the NCAA Division III women's record for most games played in a career.
Leyman also finishes her career ranked third on Amherst's all-time rebounding list (825), as well as sixth in scoring (1,166) and 11th in assists (187). Daigneault's 1,299 points are the third most in program history, while she also ranks fifth in rebounds (695) and blocks (84). Kristyn Dunleavy '11 (East Setauket, NY) and Courtney Long '11 (Norwich, CT) combined for 811 points and 247 assists in their four years as essential components of Amherst's recent success.
When the 2011-12 season begins, Amherst will put on the line a 19-game overall winning streak and a 49-game home unbeaten streak.
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