Talking about defense, not a title defense

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Hackley is one of several Mammoths to contribute timely buckets, but it all starts at the other end of the court for Amherst.
Photo by Chris Wraight

By Adam Turer

Every Amherst player of the past 11 years has a similar story.

There’s always that one moment during her freshman season when she realizes exactly what separates this program from the rest of Division III. 

Senior captain Hannah Hackley remembers her moment. It was the season opener of her freshman year against Keene State. She was excited to be contributing as a rookie. In 18 minutes off the bench, she chipped in nine points. She may have been pleased with her performance, but her coach was not.

“I got some good minutes and scored a decent amount and was so excited,” said Hackley, who now recounts the story with a laugh. “G.P. looks at me and says ‘Are you happy right now? If you don’t learn to play defense, you'll never play in my program.’”

That tough love is always an eye-opener, but it’s also one of the main reasons why Amherst is seeking its third national championship in 11 seasons under head coach G.P. Gromacki.

Hackley learned to play defense quickly, and Friday night will mark her 98th career start for the Mammoths. This season, she has stepped into an even bigger role, leading by example for an otherwise young roster.

“Hannah’s one of the best players we’ve ever had in our program. It’s great to see at NCAA tourney time she’s really stepped up her game,” said Gromacki. “She and [junior] Emma [McCarthy] have really taken on that leadership role after we lost three great leaders from last year. They’ve kept the team together and positive and allowed the younger girls to blossom.”

Hackley is the only senior in the starting lineup and one of just two who see action. Jackie Nagle chips in 6.7 points and 4.4 rebounds per game off the bench. The Mammoths are paced by a trio of sophomore starters, Madeline Eck, Hannah Fox, and Cam Hendricks. Eck saw the most action as a freshman, starting eight games. It’s not always easy for a young player to earn this coaching staff’s trust on the defensive end so quickly, but these three have proven themselves.

“They’ve brought intensity and focus on what we’re doing defensively,” said Gromacki. “They know that they have to play defense to play. They’re all pretty athletic; they can play the defense that we need them to play.”

For co-captains Hackley and McCarthy, getting their younger teammates to buy in has been a breeze.

“We see our role as helping and encouraging our teammates to play to their potential and to bring out the best in each others' game at the right time,” said Hackley. “It's so easy to do for a team that is so present and excited and motivated.”

Defense has been the key to this current 64-game winning streak in which the Mammoths have allowed just 39 points per game on 28 percent shooting. But it’s not a stifling press, or a gimmicky zone, or physical man-to-man defense that sets Amherst apart. It has been the Mammoths’ ability to adapt game-to-game, opponent-to-opponent, that has been the cornerstone of their defensive prowess.

“What’s really unique about this team is we can adjust to different styles. Some teams enter the NCAA Tournament and they’re hoping they don’t play a certain type of team,” said Gromacki. “We just adjust to whatever type of team we’re playing. Our defense is always going to keep us in the game. We’ve just got to find the right people to score the points and we’ve been able to do that.”

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The Mammoths are allowing just over 34 points per game in the tournament, including a record-setting 12 points allowed in the opening round win over Becker. Only three opponents this season were able to score over 50 points against Amherst. Those teams lost by an average margin of 16 points.

“Our whole coaching staff does an amazing job with scouting and film. How we break down plays is so intricate. We really pay attention to detail and hold each other accountable. It's more of a mental focus,” said Hackley. “We adjust our defense every game based on personnel and what we've learned about that opponent. But we work so hard on defense that not much changes from game to game. We go in with the same intensity and focus.”

The better the Mammoths are defending, the more likely they are to run up the score at the other end. They’ve won games while scoring in the 70s and 80s, and survived tough NESCAC battles while scoring in the 40s.

“Defense definitely gets us going. It spurs everything from our offense to our transition,” said Hackley. “It really carries over. When we don't have our best defensive games, we struggle on the other end.”

One thing that has not carried over into this season is talk of last year’s national championship. This is a very different team and neither the players nor coaches believe that last year’s undefeated season has an bearing on this year’s 31-0 start.

“We haven’t talked about last year at all,” said Gromacki. “I told them before the tournament, ‘What’s our record, who knows?’ It doesn’t matter what anyone’s record is. We just worry each weekend who we’re playing. Our players probably don’t know the records of other Final Four teams.”

Amherst’s most recent loss came in the 2016 national semifinals against the same program the Mammoths will face at the same stage this weekend. But Hackley is the only player on the current roster who played more than a minute in that contest.

Since then, the Mammoths have been battle-tested. The NESCAC has dominated women’s Division III basketball, with Tufts finishing as runner-up to Amherst last year, and Bowdoin playing in the other national semifinal this season. The Mammoths won all four of their games in the Classic in Las Vegas, including a victory over seventh-ranked Trine.

“I think we’ve got one of the toughest schedules in the country,” said Gromacki. “I think that can only help you because you’ve seen it before. We’ve been tested many times, but we’ve really made the plays when we needed to.”

Since their first seasons in the program, every player on this team has learned that you can always work harder and get better, especially on the defensive end. That desire and motivation to stop others is what keeps the Mammoths going.

“That's one of the great things about our coaches. They never get comfortable and they're always working and trying to get us to improve,” said Hackley. “We celebrate victories and our landmarks, whether that's winning the regular season, NESCAC tournament, or making the Final Four. It's so exciting.

“But we realize we have a lot to learn and a lot to improve on. It's such a fun journey, but we want two more.”