Washington University of St. Louis is back in familiar territory - playing in the championship game of the NCAA Division III women's basketball tournament.
Using a swarming defense, relentless rebounding and balanced scoring attack, the Bears defeated Amherst (Mass.), 65-49, Friday in a national semifinal contest at DeVos Fieldhouse. Wash U. will face the winner of the second semifinal between George Fox (Ore.) and the College of New Jersey for the national championship at 1 p.m. Saturday.
Wash U. (26-4), which won four consecutive national championships from 1998-2001, advanced to the championship game for the seventh time, the most of any Division III school. Wash U. last reached the title game in 2007, losing to DePauw (Ind.)
"I'm just really proud of our kids, that we were able to withstand their first (run), and settle into our style of play," Wash U. coach Nancy Fahey said.
Leading 27-22 at halftime, the Bears opened the second half with a 12-3 spurt, capped off by a three-point play by Kathryn Berger, to build a 39-25 lead with 16:15 remaining.
Amherst (29-3), which is playing in its first Final Four, stormed back with a 10-2 run, sparked by six points by Amanda Otieno, to slice the Wash U. lead to 41-35 with 12:22 remaining.
But then the Bears, who won the University Athletic Association championship, pulled away. Wash U. limited the Lord Jeffs to one field goal over the next eight minutes, outscoring Amherst 16-2 to open up a 57-37 lead with five minutes to play.
"They really took us out of our game. We didn't play like we have been playing or are capable of," Amherst coach GP Gromacki said. "But give credit to Wash U. They had a great game plan, and we just couldn't get it going."
The Bears shot 40 percent (21 of 52) from the field, while limiting Amherst a season-low 28 percent (17 of 61). They also sank 22 of 26 from the free-throw line, compared to 9-of-11 for the Lord Jeffs, and controlled the boards by a 45-34 margin.
"It was a women's game. You had to attack inside, you had to be able to be strong," Fahey said.
Amherst jumped out to a 14-7 lead eight minutes into the contest on the strength of four 3-point baskets, including back-to-back triples by Courtney Long. But sparked by reserve forward Kelsey Robb, the Bears came back with runs of 12-1 and 8-2 to take a five-point lead at the half. Robb finished with 12 points in 18 minutes of play, the only player in the game to score in double figures.
"She's our most improved kid from last year," Fahey said of Robb. "Her ability to bury kids inside, to go with the right (or) left hook, was a big difference."
Senior forward Jaimie McFarlin grabbed 15 rebounds for the Bears, while Zoe Unruh scored nine points and Alex Hoover eight.
Long and Lem Atanga McCormick led the Lord Jeffs with eight points apiece. First-team All-American Jaci Daigneault strugged with foul trouble all game long and was limited to four points, to go along with nine rebounds.