At Amherst, LeFrak is jumping
|Aaron Toomey was at the
center of a celebratory weekend at Amherst.
Amherst athletics photo
Aaron Toomey stretched to the limits of his 6-foot-1, 170-pound frame, ascending skyward until Middlebury's last-second Hail Mary heave found his hands, effectively giving Amherst one of the most impressive weekend sweeps of conference opponents you will see in Division III.
“I'm not the most athletic guy or tallest guy out there,” the sophomore guard said, “but I just really wanted it.”
No one on Amherst's roster has experienced the wave of emotion that overcame Toomey and his teammates after defeating archrival Williams last Friday night – the same squad that ended the Lord Jeffs' season in last year's Elite Eight – before upending 2011 national finalist and No. 4-ranked Middlebury in overtime less than 24 hours later. Not since 2007-08 did they celebrate as they did Saturday evening once Toomey's feet touched the LeFrak Gymnasium floor.
More than merely avenging last winter's discontent against the opponents senior guard Taylor Barrise admitted he circled on his calendar, it gave the No. 2 Lord Jeffs the top seed and secured homecourt advantage throughout the NESCAC tournament starting with Saturday's home tip-off against eighth-seeded Hamilton.
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“I think we put ourselves in the best position we could,” Barrise said. “We love to play in LeFrak, so we want to play as many games as we could in LeFrak.”
Since a surprising 68-67 Little Three loss to Wesleyan on Jan. 17 – they won the one that counted in the NESCAC standings Jan. 6 by a 66-64 count – the Lord Jeffs have excelled in the white-knuckle times they struggled with last winter. Especially against the Middleburys and Williamses on their schedule. Barrise and Toomey both recalled how their collective mindset devolved into individual play when runs went against them during 2011's losses against arguably their two biggest opponents.
If 2011 signaled Amherst's return to the national spotlight after missing the 2010 NCAA Division III playoffs, then this year reestablished Dave Hixon's program as a national championship contender. As with other several other hopefuls from coast to coast, the Lord Jeffs will bring a gaudy record and a slew of onesided victories into the brackets next month.
However, the teams we will see in Salem will have found ways to succeed despite the crush of last-second pressure, despite being taken out of the comfort zone that comes with dictating their style of play.
And that is what makes Amherst's weekend sweep even more remarkable.
Last Friday night, Toomey drove to the basket before pulling up and draining a short jumper with 1.9 seconds left, sending Williams home on the wrong end of an 80-78 decision after 17 ties and 24 lead changes.
After barely taking a deep breath, the Lord Jeffs survived in overtime despite leading throughout most of regulation, finally emerging with a 77-75 victory after 45 minutes when Pete Kaasilas converted an offensive rebound with 2.8 ticks remaining to stretch their home win streak to 26 games.
“We came into the weekend with a lot of confidence,” said Toomey, Amherst's leading scorer at 16.5 points per game. “We came in knowing that we could beat both teams. We knew it would be a big weekend, but we came in confident and trusted one another.”
“It was an all-around great weekend,” Barrise said.
And now, barring an upset, the road to the NESCAC championship goes through Amherst. Perhaps the only question is how many more games the Lord Jeffs will get to play at LeFrak Gymnasium beyond the conference tournament, considering the school's women's basketball team is the defending national champions, undefeated and ranked No. 1 nationally.
“As a senior, I love to play in this gym,” Barrise said. “I never want to leave this gym.”
Well, not never. After all, the Final Four is in Virginia.
“Actually,” Barrise said with a laugh, “I want to end it in Salem.”
Smith powering William Paterson
In the first three years after April Smith transferred from fellow NJAC and national power Kean four years ago, Erin Monahan found herself forever trying to reason with her talented forward. For all of her frontcourt phenom's offensive gifts, her commitment to defense left her coach flustered.
“We butted heads for (three years). But I think she's finally getting it,” Monahan said. “She matured enough to see what she could do here at William Paterson.”
Credit an offseason of rededicating herself to her sport and her dream of playing overseas for Smith is producing the best season by a forward in William Paterson women's basketball history. After spending the summer running three miles a day, lifting and making herself a fixture during open gyms, the 5-9 fifth-year senior and preseason D3hoops.com honorable mention All-American is leading the nation with 20 double-doubles – and is the only player nationally among the Top 10 in both scoring (21.8 ppg) and rebounding (12.2 rpg).
Along with preseason first team All-American and reigning NJAC co-player of the year BriAnna Lucas, Smith's efforts – she already has recorded career bests of 58 steals and 46 blocks – have helped the Pioneers climb as high as sixth in the D3hoops.com rankings and emerge as a Final Four contender.
“It's my last year and I wanted to finish on a good note, so I put in more time,” Smith said. “I worked hard.”
Smith could have graduated in December – she missed all but five games of the 2009-10 season because of a hip injury – but came back partially because of her dream of playing professionally. Monahan believes this is more than a pipe dream because, “Some of the kids from our conference who are not nearly as good as her are playing overseas.”
But first, after telling Monahan and longtime assistant coach Jill Bachonski she was committed to improving on the bus ride back from the Pioneers' Sweet 16 loss at Lebanon Valley last March, Smith put in the work that have made becoming just the fourth William Paterson player with both 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds a real possibility. Entering Tuesday's night's NJAC semifinal title against either Rutgers-Newark or The College of New Jersey, the senior ranks third all-time with 1,575 points while sitting 64 rebounds from reaching 1,000 boards.
“I won't be satisfied until I get my 1,000 rebounds,” Smith said. “The more rebounds I get, the more possibilities my team has to win. If I can do that one thing, that's my contribution.”
Even more impressive than Smith's rededication and her production: she is doing this despite battling tendinitis in both shoulders that often prompts Monahan to sit her out of practices.
“When I grab a reb and someone grabs for it, too, it hurts,” Smith said. “But in the game, you have to to push it all to the side.”
With Smith leading the way, the Pioneers are looking to repeat as NJAC tournament champions for the first time in school history. Although a lock to earn their 10th invite in Monahan's 19 seasons as bench boss, the senior forward could be the key to their first Final Four appearance after reaching the Elite Eight twice (1995, 1998) and the Sweet 16 (1997, 2011) on two other occasions.
“As a team, I want to win the NJAC back-to-back,” Smith said. “And I want to go all the way. At least further than the Sweet 16 like last year.
“I definitely think we have the team to do it. It's a matter of us believing and playing like we want it every single game.”
Different approach, similar results for UW-Stevens Point
After losing All-American Britta Peterson and All-Central Region performer Andrea Flease from last winter's Sweet 16 squad, UW-Stevens Point is embracing an all-for-one approach that, although not always pleasing to the eyes of longtime coach Shirley Egner, has nonetheless proven effective.
“We're a little bit inconsistent, but we have a great work ethic and we have some great blue-collar kids,” Egner said. “We find a way to be successful even when we're not clicking on all cylinders.”
Clearly Egner is a perfectionist. Consider that Stevens Point is riding an eight-game winning streak entering Saturday's contest at No. 22 UW-Eau Claire, a run in which they have outlasted each of their WIAC opponents by double-digit outcomes while allowing more than 60 points just twice.
Instead of leaning heavily on the inside-outside tandem of Flease and Peterson that pointed the Pointers into the Sweet 16 last March, Egner relies upon a 10-woman rotation – seven of which have led them in scoring this season, including three double-digit performers in junior guard Sam Barber (14.0 ppg, 5.7 rpg), senior pivot Ashley Averkamp (11.1 ppg, 4.0 rpg), and senior guard Cassie Bandow (10.3 ppg, 3.6 apg, 3.5 rpg).
Overall, nine players average double figures in minutes played for Stevens Point, which outscores opponents by nearly 17 points per outing (70.0-53.1) despite getting outrebounded most nights (36.9-36.1).
“I don't think anybody thought we'd be where we are right now with this group of women (despite) the two players we lost to graduation (last year),” said Egner, whose squad was ranked 11th in the D3hoops.com preseason poll.
And yet, here the Pointers are, needing only a victory Saturday against an Eau Claire team Egner said “we don't match up real well with” to secure the top seed in the WIAC tournament. Despite their coach's concern, they defeated their rivals, 64-60, on Jan. 7.