How Smith College basketball built a D3 Final Four contender
|Published: 03-17-2023 4:00 PM
The line wrapped around Smith College’s Indoor Track & Tennis complex an hour before tipoff. Smith athletic director Kristen Hughes’ phone lit up with a text, “It’s like a Rihanna concert out here.”
Ainsworth Gymnasium holds roughly 500 people, and the throngs tested that limit to witness history. The Pioneers packed it for the sixth time in three weekends, winning their third straight NEWMAC conference championship and four NCAA Tournament games to reach the program’s first Final Four.
“It has been this wonderful chaos these last few weeks,” Hughes said. “I’ve known all along how great these teams are and how hard these coaches work and all the hours they put in that no one sees.”
Now everyone wants to see them. Smith (30-1) will face Transylvania (31-0) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Trinity College’s Oosting Gymnasium in Hartford, Conn. for a trip to the national championship game in Dallas. Six full coach buses of students have already signed up to follow the Pioneers.
“It hasn’t happened by mistake. It’s happened with a lot of intention and purpose and sacrifice,” said Smith coach Lynn Hersey, the D3 national coach of the year who has led the program since 2007. “I have a lot of gratitude for our team for being into what they could accomplish and their follow through has been outstanding. The glue to it all is everyone has done their role to make that happen.”
They’re the first historically women’s college team to reach this point, just like they were the first historically women’s college to get to the Elite 8 last round, become the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed a few weeks ago and make the Sweet 16 in 2020.
Except Smith doesn’t see that as an obstacle.
“I’m tired of defending how good this team is. People think a historically women’s college shouldn’t have this level of success. That’s the thing we’re trying to change. Because we’re a historically women’s college, this should be the best place to come have this kind of experience,” Hughes said. “It’s not women’s basketball here, it’s basketball.”
Smith teacher Senda Berenson brought basketball to Smith and hosted the first women’s basketball game at the school in 1893, two years after Dr. James Naismith invented the sport down I-91 at Springfield College. The Pioneers didn’t make the NCAA Tournament until 2013 when they received an at-large bid and a three-hour bus trip to face No. 8 Southern Maine in Gorham.
“It was David against Goliath. They had been to the NCAA Tournament something like 20 years in a row. It was our first trip,” Hersey said.
The Pioneers, not satisfied with just their first appearance, won their first NCAA Tournament game in a blowout. They lost in the second round against Ithaca but showed the program’s potential.
“It was a big pivot in terms of winning, winning big games and becoming more consistent as a program. It created more of a belief in what we were capable of doing,” Hersey said. “I give that group a lot of credit for our ability to push the limit here, push the ceiling here. It showed us we could play and compete on the national stage.”
In the five years between that trip and Smith’s next NCAA Tournament bid in 2019, Hersey and her staff built. They scoured the country for recruits but sometimes had to sell them on more than the school and team. Often, it required pitching the idea of attending a historically women’s college.
“It’s really understanding what it is that makes Smith unique and special,” Hersey said.
Smith was ranked the No. 13 liberal arts college in the country by the latest U.S. News and World report. The alumnae network stretches across the world and across disciplines.
“It’s about leadership for women and the opportunities a place like Smith provides for women and how women are the center of everything,” Hersey said.
Especially the athletics program. There’s no gender disparity. Smith’s weight rooms are designed for women. The basketball program uses the gym 100 percent of the winter season and doesn’t split time with a men’s team.
“In my opinion this is the most elite student athlete experience in the county in terms of Division 3. Our student athletes are validated for all of their hard work and dedication to their sport,” Hersey said. “There isn’t a shared spotlight. When the spotlight is fully on you, it’s a different experience. We’re one of the few places that can argue our women get the full spotlight.”
That appealed to graduate student Katelyn Pickunka when she looked for a collegiate home after her career at Hampshire Regional ended. She realized in talking to her future teammates they’d all had a universal experience in high school: the girls team was better than the boys team, but more fans attended boys games anyway.
“You’re put in a very unique position as a young woman (at Smith). I’m happy to be a part of this huge, historical experience,” Pickunka said. “It has a lot of value with Smith’s history. It’s great to have this platform and talk about it and represent historically all-women’s institutions, because I think there is a little bit of a connotation.”
She’s pitched it to recruit after recruit over her five years with the program. Most don’t understand all of the benefits.
“It’s definitely not for everyone,” Pickunka said. “You give your perspective on the benefits academically, athletically and other extra curriculars including research, and you have an honest conversation like ‘what are your worries about it?’”
Smith senior Morgan Morrison needed some convincing after Smith coaches approached her at an AAU tournament in Georgia. She brought up the possibility with her high school college counselor at Detroit Country Day, and he lit up, singing the school’s praises.
“It was a really comfortable space to be in. The recruits that come here can see how relaxed everyone is. I think that helps them decide if they want to come here or not,” said Morrison, the D3 National Player of the Year. “It was such a relaxing and safe space to be in.”
Both Morrison and Pickunka are part of a golden generation at Smith. They and their peers have won an NCAA Tournament game every year since 2019.
“It’s definitely unexpected. But when we all came in as first years there were seven of us, and nobody really expected anything of Smith. We were considered to be in a rebuilding phase,” Morrison said. “Being young first years in general we were pretty naive, and we wanted it all. We wanted to win our conference when we came in. I don’t think anyone really believed that we would get there.”
The Pioneers won the NEWMAC title for the first time that season and are three-time conference champions. No member of the current roster has failed to reach a Sweet 16 every year Smith has competed (the Pioneers did not participate in the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19).
“The first year when we shocked the NEWMAC with no seniors, that gave us a taste for more,” Morrison said.
Smith entered this season as the conference favorites and No. 7 team in the country. Just taking one more step to an Elite 8 or Final Four wouldn’t suffice.
“We came back this year going, ‘We want a national championship. We want more than we’ve ever expected,’” Morrison said. “It was a shift for us. We’d been the underdog up until this year. It was a shift in mindset to understand that everyone else is considered the underdog. Now we’re considered Goliath. We have to prove why we’re ranked No. 1 and why we’re good and why you shouldn’t underestimate us anymore.”