D3 women’s basketball: Smith reaches program’s first Final Four after beating Trinity

By KYLE GRABOWSKI

Staff Writer

Published: 03-12-2023 12:35 AM

NORTHAMPTON – The chants began with more than a minute left.

“Final Four! Final Four! Final Four!”

The reality hit the Smith College student section long before the basketball team allowed itself to believe. Smith forward Katelyn Pickunka spread her arms wide, inviting Pioneers guard Ally Yamada in for a long hug as the clock hit all zeroes and the buzzer sounded to make it official Saturday. The rest of the team sprang off the bench and launched into them as they all embraced. Two students raced over from the bleachers, a court trickle more than a storm after an NCAA Tournament Elite 8 victory.

The scoreboard read Smith 63, Trinity 46 at Ainsworth Gymnasium.

“It’s not real yet. I don’t think it’ll be real for a couple days,” Smith senior forward Morgan Morrison said. “It feels really great to have this opportunity because not a lot of people do and just to be here, It’s unreal.”

The orange ladder was real. The scissors were real to cut down the Ainsworth Gymnasium net, the opposite one that the Pioneers usually snip after they won each of their three consecutive NEWMAC titles.

“Having the second time was surreal. That’s never happened,” Yamada said. “That net’s been there for a while. Having two being cut in one year was just amazing.”

After each player took their thread, Smith coach Lynn Hersey, who has led the Pioneers for 16 years and is their all-time wins leader, removed the rest of the nylon and whirled it around from the top step, balancing in beige high heels. She threw it like a bouquet, which Morrison grabbed above all of her teammates like a rebound.

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Morrison fouled out of the team’s Sweet 16 overtime win over Mary Washington. She also struggled with foul trouble in the second-round win over St. John Fisher. With history on the line, Trinity felt her presence. Morrison registered her 13th double-double of the season with 17 points and 11 rebounds. She committed just two fouls.

“I just wanted to come back stronger and not let other teams think that that’s a weakness for me,” Morrison said. “I just tried to play the cleanest defense I’ve ever played in my life. I really wanted to take a stand and show that, we may be caught down at a moment – especially me – but we always come back.”

Smith (30-1), which won its 24th consecutive game, led by double digits for most of the game. Trinity (25-6) pulled as close as six in the third quarter on a Francesca Silva free throw with 3:16 left to make it 42-36. Smith ended the frame on a 5-0 run to stretch its advantage back to double digits. Morrison, the NEWMAC and New England Women’s Basketball Association Player of the Year, scored 10 of the Pioneers’ 12 points in the quarter.

“The NCAA Tournament is a stage where your big players need make big plays. This is how you would advance to a Final Four. Everyone has them. We have multiple,” Hersey said. “Morgan is just so consistent. She just impacts the game in so many ways. I know everybody looks at the points, but her ability to control the boards, the amount of double-doubles she gets, her rim protection for us, her ability to rotate. That was huge.”

Both Smith’s tallest player (Morrison) and smallest (Yamada) delivered when the Pioneers needed them. Yamada erupted for 18 of her 23 points in the second quarter, as the Pioneers built a double-digit lead. The junior hit 5-of-8 3s in the frame. She splashed a jumper 10 seconds into the quarter to give the Pioneers a 15-13 lead and kept hitting as they built it to double digits. Her triple with 4:46 to halftime gave Smith its first double-digit lead 29-19.

“They’ll be Hall of Fame players here at Smith some day, and they just brought their team to a Final Four,” Hersey said. “That’s something they will always have.”

Smith’s advantage ballooned to 16 with 5:22 left when Pickunka, a Hampshire Regional grad, sank two free throws to make it 58-52. The graduate student had eight points and 11 boards.

After playing their last six games at home, the Pioneers will strike out to Hartford for the Final Four to face Transylvania (31-0) in Trinity’s gym in Hartford on Saturday. They made history reaching the Elite Eight on Friday. Saturday’s Final Four trip is a pantheon moment for a program. But why stop there?

“I’m thinking about all the work that needs to be done, and preparation. For (Saturday), yeah, we’re going to celebrate this. We’re going to enjoy our time together. It’s a big accomplishment. We’re super privileged to be at a school like Smith with all the support we’ve had, and the belief that we could do something like this. That’s very meaningful to all of us,” Hersey said. “I’m just ready for more. This is fun. This is great. I don’t think this is the ultimate goal for any of us.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.]]>