WATERVILLE, Maine --- No NCAA Division III team in the country will get a bigger challenge this weekend than the Colby College women's basketball team when the Mules head to Amherst College for the New England Small College Athletic Conference Final Four.
The fourth-seeded Mules (19-6 overall) will face top-seeded Amherst College (25-0 overall) in one semifinal game at 1 p.m., followed by third-seeded Bowdoin College and second-seeded Tufts University at 3 p.m. The championship game is Sunday at noon at Amherst. The games will be Webcast and live statistics are available at https://www.amherst.edu/athletics/jeffcast/jeffcast2
Amherst has a 61-game home winning streak, are the defending national champions, are two-time defending NESCAC champs, and have been ranked first in the country this season since the start of the year.
While the challenge is large, Colby proved to the Lord Jeffs and a home crowd back on January 21 that it has the ability to play with Amherst. The Mules led by seven points with a little more than four minutes to play before Amherst fought back for a 51-50 victory.
Rachael Mack, the NESCAC Player of the Week for last week, moved into sixth place on Colby's all-time scoring list with 1,230 points after her team's thrilling 61-59 quarterfinal win over fifth-seeded Williams College on Saturday. She is first on the Mules in 3-point field goal percentage (.403), steals (38), and is second in scoring (12.9), rebounding (7.2), field goal percentage (.500), free throw percentage (.884), and blocked shots (25).
Jil Vaughan leads the Mules, who are making a third straight trip to the NESCAC Final Four, in scoring (13.0), rebounding (8.6), field goal percentage (.562), and blocked shots (47 total). She ranks 12th nationally and first in the NESCAC in field goal percentage. She also is tied for second in the league in rebounding, second in blocks, and fifth in scoring.
Mack, Vaughan, and fellow forward Kelly Potvin combined for 30 of the Mules' 50 points in the first meeting against Amherst. Colby guards Aarika Ritchie (10.0 ppg., 95 assists), Diana Mandua (8.7 ppg., 85 assists), Jacky McLaughlin (6.3 ppg.), and Jayde Bennett (4.2 ppg., 55 assists) will need to play key roles Saturday. Bennett scored nine points --- the same as Williams did as a team --- in the final eight minutes against the Ephs on Saturday. Ritchie calmly sank two free throws with 2.1 seconds left to give Colby the game-winning points Saturday.
Here's a look at the other three teams vying for the championship:
AMHERST: Amherst's defense can be stifling at times, ranking second in the nation in field goal percentage defense (29.1 percent) and second in 3-point field goal defense (20.5). The Lord Jeffs also have about a plus-12 rebounding advantage over the opponent.
The Lord Jeffs' offense is good as well. Amherst, which took a 94-59 win over Trinity College in its quarterfinal game, leads the league in points per game (75.6), margin of victory (+30.0), and shooting percentage (.427).
Senior guard Caroline Stedman, the NESCAC Player of the Year in 2010, ranks third in the conference in scoring with 13.7 points per game. First-year forward Megan Robertson is second to Stedman in scoring, posting 11.5 points and a team-best 7.6 rebounds. Stedman, Shannon Finucane, and Lem Atanga McCormick are all 1,000-point scorers for the Lord Jeffs. Atanga McCormick sat out the first game against Colby and has since returned to the line-up, but missed Saturday's quarterfinal with Trinity.
TUFTS: Second-seeded Tufts (20-5 overall) has steadily put together an impressive year of its own. Frustrating foes with a tenacious defense, the Jumbos head into the weekend holding opponents to 45.2 points per game - a figure that not only is the lowest in the conference but also ranks second nationally. Tufts also limits the opposition to a .325 shooting percentage, out-rebounds foes by 6.1 boards per game, and generates more turnovers than it gives up at a rate of 5.68, marks that are among the best in the NESCAC.
The Jumbos' defensive strength was on full display during their quarterfinal outing against Connecticut College, as they held the Camels to 20 points in each half, limited the offense to .327 percent shooting, and turned 16 turnovers into 20 points in a 57-40 victory.
Nine different players average regular minutes for the Jumbos, and not one of those individuals sit among the top 20 in the conference in scoring. Seniors Kate Barnosky and Tiffany Kornegay pace the Jumbos in scoring with 9.0 and 8.2 points per game, respectively. Kornegay's team-high 8.6 rebounds and 2.48 steals per game are among the highest totals in the league.
BOWDOIN: Bowdoin is the most storied program in championship history, owning eight conference titles and a 28-3 record in the league playoffs following a 53-37 victory over Wesleyan in the quarterfinals. During last year's tournament, Bowdoin returned to the finals and was overpowered by top-seeded Amherst, 72-37, as the Jeffs have given the Polar Bears two of their three tournament losses. Although Bowdoin fell to Amherst during the regular season by a 63-59 score on Jan. 20, it managed to post victories over Tufts (57-56) and Colby (64-52) in conference play and heads into the weekend with eight wins in the past nine games.
Driving the Polar Bears this season has been Jill Henrikson, who leads the league in scoring at 17.2 points per game - six points higher than her previous best from a year ago - with a .466 shooting percentage. Henrikson has also pulled down a team-high 6.9 rebounds, good enough for seventh among all conference players, and regularly frustrates opponents with a NESCAC-best 2.84 steals per game.
2012 NESCAC WOMEN'S BASKETBALL CHAMPIONSHIP
Quarterfinals - Saturday, Feb. 18 at Higher Seeds
at No. 1 Amherst 94, No. 8 Trinity 59
at No. 2 Tufts 57, No. 7 Connecticut College 40
at No. 3 Bowdoin 53, No. 6 Wesleyan 37
at No. 4 Colby 61, No. 5 Williams 59
Semifinals - Saturday, February 25 at Amherst
No. 4 Colby at No. 1 Amherst - 1:00 p.m.
No. 3 Bowdoin vs. No. 2 Tufts - 3:00 p.m.
Championship - Sunday, February 26
Semifinal winners - 12:00 p.m.