Lady Jeff Hoops Back On Track With Bantam Upset
A season of disappointing near-misses is finally looking up for the women’s basketball team. After strong but unsuccessful comebacks against Babson College and Williams College during the week of Jan. 11, the Jeffs played their best game of the year last Tuesday night, routing a very good Trinity team 67-48.
Coming off last year’s 15-9 season, when the Jeffs shared the Little Three title with the Williams Ephs, the team entered the 1998-99 season with high expectations. Having lost only one senior to graduation, the Jeffs kept Amherst’s all-time three-point shot leader, Co-captain Janinne Noel ’99, and their all-time fifth-highest scorer, Co-captain Katie Hersey ’99, who has since moved into third place on the all-time scoring list.
After the season opened with two disappointing losses, Coach Billy McBride made numerous lineup changes. He shifted Noel from shooting guard to point guard, and Amherst put together three straight victories by large margins. It looked as if the Jeffs were back on track. Consecutive losses to Wellesley College and Clark University, however, jarred the team’s confidence and they ended December 3-4.
In January, the Lord Jeffs looked to improve their record with a change of scenery, trading snow for fun in the California sun with games against Pomona College and Claremont College. Despite losing both games, the players and coaches agreed that the trip brought the team together.
Against Pomona, Amherst battled back from a 21-point deficit but couldn’t sustain the effort. After a lackluster loss to Claremont College, "We felt a bit lost," according to Hersey. Despite the loss, it was in the Claremont game that the Jeffs may have found the key to turning things around. McBride gave the nod to guard Hallison Putnam ’02, who took over the point, allowing Noel to return to shooting guard.
"When you’re not consistent, it’s only fair that you try to give everybody a shot," said McBride. "You lose; you do the same old thing; You stay in the same old rut."
Before the trip, Putnam went home to Kentucky basketball country and returned to the team with renewed motivation. She has continued to improve. "Hallison knows the game of basketball so well," said Hersey. "She brings leadership as a freshman." The Lord Jeffs may have returned to Amherst with a 3-6 record, but they had the tools they needed to improve.
The Babson College Beavers arrived at LeFrak Gymnasium on Jan. 14 with an 8-3 record, and expecting a cakewalk, they met an Amherst team that seemed oblivious to its underdog status. The Jeffs never backed down, but Babson was able to escape with a last-second victory, 55-54.
Other teams might have felt dejected, but the Jeffs refused to be discouraged. "Our practices are what got us through the hard times," said Hersey. "Every single person is good. They stuck together."
Despite their confident attitude, the Jeffs arrived in Williamstown on Jan. 16 with no visible change in their play. The first half typified how the season had gone; Amherst kept it close early on, but allowed a big Williams run and ended the half down 38-30.
Halfway through the second 20 minutes of play, something snapped in the Jeffs’ collective conscious. "[The] second half of the Williams game was a turning point for us," said Hersey.
Down 58-41 with 10:07 left to play, the Jeffs found their rhythm. During the next 7:42, they went on a 23-4 run, taking the lead with 2:25 left to play.
The Ephs battled back, and appeared to have sealed their victory after Noel fouled out with 14.9 seconds left. Noel’s foul sent a Williams forward to the foul stripe, but fortunately for the Jeffs, she missed both foul shots. Hersey grabbed the rebound and quickly brought the ball up-court, slashing to the basket and tying the game at 69 with 8.2 seconds remaining. Williams missed a tip-in at the buzzer, and the teams headed to overtime.
Unfortunately, the break before the extra session was to be the Jeffs’ undoing. "During the break, I lost my rhythm," said Hersey, adding that the Jeffs came out and "tried to force it a little too much," which let the Ephs hold on to win, 81-73. Despite the loss, McBride was sanguine. "This is the best 3-8 team I’ve ever had," he said. The players echoed their coach, returning home "really pumped" and ready for "a new beginning," according to Campaigne. That new beginning was about to be tested as the Jeffs opened NESCAC play against Trinity College.
Up to that point in the season, the Jeffs had struggled as players sought to find their roles. Against Trinity, the bolts slid home. The Jeffs played fluid, relaxed basketball for almost the entire game. "Before, instead of playing 40 minutes, we might play 25 minutes," said McBride.
Against Trinity, Campaigne noted that there were "lapses, but shorter than before." The result was a fluid dismantling of a Trinity team that entered LeFrak 8-1 and heavily favored. Having beaten four teams that had beaten Amherst, the Bantams expected to dominate the game.
Instead, they met an Amherst team who had found themselves, a different team than the one that returned from California 3-6. "Everybody [was] on the same page," said McBride.
Amherst out-rebounded Trinity 44-26 and had seven players with more than 10 minutes on the floor. When McBride cleared the bench in the last 10 minutes of the game, Amherst’s second-stringers actually extended the Jeff lead against Trinity’s first-team, echoing Hersey’s statement that "every single person" on the Jeffs’ roster can play.
The Jeffs travel to Middlebury on Friday and all of the players and coaches insist that they are not looking past that game to Saturday night’s showdown with Williams, a 6:00 p.m. tip-off in LeFrak.
"Once you believe that you can accomplish something, it’s just a matter of how we come together," said McBride. Campaigne added that "We are now not afraid. We don’t go into the game afraid that we’re gonna lose it. We’re just out there trying to win."
To do that, the Jeffs must build on their strengths. Campaigne has now made the switch "to be a force inside, a more dominant player where she was a finesse player [at Smith]," said McBride. Campaigne agrees.
This is a team who has found their element. A great philosopher once wrote, "It is shocking to find how many people do not believe they can learn, and how many believe learning to be difficult." The Jeffs have learned. They now must apply.