Smith College women’s basketball reaches Div. III title game for first time in program history with 61-54 OT victory over Wartburg

Smith College's Jane Loo takes a shot against Wartburg during the semifinals of the the NCAA Div. III Women's Basketball Championship in Columbus, Ohio, on Thursday.

Smith College's Jane Loo takes a shot against Wartburg during the semifinals of the the NCAA Div. III Women's Basketball Championship in Columbus, Ohio, on Thursday. CONTRIBUTED IMAGE/D3 PHOTOGRAPHY

Smith College's Jessie Ruffner goes in for a layup against Wartburg during the semifinals of the the NCAA Div. III Women's Basketball Championship in Columbus, OH on Thursday.

Smith College's Jessie Ruffner goes in for a layup against Wartburg during the semifinals of the the NCAA Div. III Women's Basketball Championship in Columbus, OH on Thursday. CONTRIBUTED IMAGE/D3 PHOTOGRAPHY

Smith College's Ally Yamada takes a jump shot against Wartburg during the semifinals of the the NCAA Div. III Women's Basketball Championship in Columbus, OH on Thursday.

Smith College's Ally Yamada takes a jump shot against Wartburg during the semifinals of the the NCAA Div. III Women's Basketball Championship in Columbus, OH on Thursday. CONTRIBUTED IMAGE/D3 PHOTOGRAPHY

By CONNOR PIGNATELLO

Staff Writer

Published: 03-14-2024 9:34 PM

Modified: 03-15-2024 9:37 AM


Smith College point guard Ally Yamada escaped the press in the backcourt, dribbled out the final seconds of the clock and jumped into Jessie Ruffner’s arms. Then, she hopped down, violently high-fived Ruffner multiple times and jumped right back into her arms. 

Led by 24 points from Yamada and 22 from Ruffner, Smith College outlasted Wartburg (Iowa) 61-54 in overtime at the Division III women’s basketball Final Four in Columbus, Ohio on Thursday evening to advance to its first-ever national championship game. The Pioneers (30-3) 16th straight win secures a second consecutive 30-win season. They play top seed NYU (30-0) for the title on Saturday at 7 p.m.

“(Ally and I) have been teammates since we started playing at Smith in 2019,” Ruffner said. “We were on that first team that kind of started this journey for Smith, so for us, this is what we’ve worked for…this is what we’ve worked for our whole entire career.”

Last year, Smith made it to the Final Four for the first time in program history, but lost to eventual champion Transylvania in the semifinals. 

“(Dribbling out the clock) was just a really emotional moment,” Yamada said. “I remember last year, we were in this same position at the Final Four and it was a tough loss. They were able to dribble out the ball in that game…so being on the opposite side of it felt really rewarding. It was just awesome.”

This time around – even if it took an extra session – the Pioneers finished the job, outscoring Wartburg 13-6 in overtime after a deep 3-pointer from the Knights with just three seconds left in regulation sent it to OT.

After a tight first half that saw lengthy scoring droughts for both teams, Wartburg held a 22-18 lead at the break. But Smith stormed back early in the third quarter, going on a 12-2 run to take a lead they would hold for the rest of the half. They attacked inside-out, setting up 3-pointers for Yamada and post actions for Sofia Rosa while opening up lanes for Ruffner to drive into.

Smith nearly won in regulation after a layup from Ruffner with just 13 seconds left gave the Pioneers a 48-45 lead. But on Wartburg’s final possession, Sara Faber knocked down a one-dribble triple from the top of the arc to tie the game at 48. Yamada had a wide-open 3-pointer at the buzzer that would have given the Pioneers the win, but it clanged off the front of the rim.

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Yamada came right back in overtime though, knocking down two 3-pointers for Smith’s first six points of the session and giving the Pioneers a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Yamada finished with six made 3-pointers – as many as Wartburg’s entire team combined.

“It was resetting her mindset,” Smith head coach Lynn Hersey said of her conversation with Yamada between the end of regulation and overtime. “She has hit so many big threes for us. It had to be a quick shift of ‘you can impact the game moving forward, and that’s what you’re going to do. I believe in you, the team believes in you, so the next open 3, you’ve got to fire and be confident in that shot.’”

With Smith holding a 54-51 lead with 39 seconds left in overtime, Ruffner sealed the game with an and-one at the rim to give the Pioneers a seven-point advantage. As she walked to the line, every single one of her teammates shoved her in approval.

After Ruffner converted the back-end of the and-one, all Smith had to do was ice its free throws to advance. Wartburg and Smith both struggled from the floor all game, shooting 34% and 35% from the field, respectively. But in overtime, Smith shot 3-for-5 from the field, 2-for-3 from deep and 5-for-5 from the line. Wartburg only made one shot from the floor.

In last season’s Final Four loss, Ruffner was held to four points. This year, she’s scored at least 20 in four straight NCAA Tournament wins.

“You learn from those hard moments,” Ruffner said. “For me, it didn’t feel good to not show up on the big stage and not show up for my teammates. So, this being my senior year, I think this whole entire tournament I want to be in the game for as long as I can. I’m going to do anything I can to keep myself playing and keep this team playing and keep the fans watching. There’s just so much pride I have playing for Smith that has just accumulated more and more as I’ve been a player here.”