March 8, 2014

Valiant effort comes up just short as women fall to Smith in ECAC semis, 64-61

BEVERLY, Mass. – The Brandeis University women's basketball team nearly erased a 10-point second-half deficit, but the eighth-seeded Judges couldn't quite complete the comeback against No. 4 seed Smith College as the Pioneers earned a 64-61victory in the semifinals of the 2014 ECAC Division III New England Tournament. The Judges close their season with a 14-13 record, while Smith improves to 18-11 and will meet second seed and host Endicott College tomorrow in the title game.

Brandeis put four starters in double figures in scoring. Senior Kasey Dean (Southbury, Conn./Pomperaug) , in her final collegiate game, led all players with 15 points and six assists. She also tied for team-high honors with seven rebounds. Senior guard Janelle Rodriguez (Peabody, Mass./Peabody Veterans) matched her season-high with 13 points, including eight points in a three-minute span late in the second half. Senior center Nicolina Vitale (Clinton Township, Mich./Chippewa Falls) and rookie forward  Maria Jackson (Rochester, N.Y./Hilton) each had 10 points, with Vitale tying Dean for team-best honors with seven boards while picking up three steals.

Smith also had four scorers in double digits, with Jazmine Collins coming off the bench to lead the Pioneers with 13 points. Forward Rosa Drummond had 12 points, frontcourt mate Sydney Parkmond added 11 and guard Paulina Solis had 10. The Smith bench was a big difference in the contest. In addition to Collins' 13 points, Lauren Weston and Mandy Castro each had eight points in reserve. Each of those three players outscored the Brandeis bench, which had only seven points. Parkmond led all players with nine rebounds, while Solis and Collins had seven boards each. Solis topped the Pioneers with five assists, while Collins led all players with four steals.

The contest was as close statistically as the final score indicated. The teams' shooting performance from the floor was nearly identical, with both sides making 25 field goals and Brandeis's 58 attempts one more than Smith's. The Pioneers outscored Brandeis from beyond the arc, making six 3-pointers to just two for the Judges. Both teams had tough nights from the free-throw line, making under 60 percent. The  Judges controlled the boards, 41-32, and points in the paint, 32-20, but they were never able to complete their comeback.

The game was close in the early going, tied at 13 five-and-a-half minutes in after a Dean jumper. Solis responded from downtown, and then hit two free throws at the 12:51 mark to make it a five-point lead in favor of Smith, a lead they would never end up relinquishing. The Judges climbed back within two on rookie Paris Hodges' (Southampton, N.Y./Southampton) drive to the net, but the Pioneers answered with back-to-back 3-pointers by Drummond and Castro. A Collins foul shot gave Smith a 29-20 lead with 7:05 before the break. Brandeis wouldn't allow Smith to pull away, with five different hitting buckets in a 10-2 run capped by a Jackson jumper on a feed from senior Angela Miller (Sicklerville, N.J./Timber Creek) at the 2:15 mark. Smith responded with the final six points of the stanza, the last four coming from Collins, to take a 37-30 lead into the locker room. Solis led all players with 10 first-half points and four assists, while Parkmond had eight points and six rebounds. Dean scored seven of her 15 points in the first half, while Jackson added six.

Brandeis came out in the first half and held Smith scoreless for nearly four minutes as they cut the lead back down to two points on a Hodges free throw. Every time the Judges seemed poised to get over the hump against Smith, the Pioneers were able to answer, with 3-pointer playing a key role. Drummond hit a trifecta at 15:22 to make it a five-point contest, while Castro's bomb at 11:23 made it an eight-point game at 50-42.

After Smith came out of a timeout and scored four unanswered points to take a 54-44 lead at the midway point of the second half, Brandeis tried to chip away at the lead. The Judges forced turnovers on three-straight Smith possessions, with a Vitale steal with just under eight minutes left leading to a Dean hoop that made it 54-49, with 7:52 to go. The Pioneers called time and came out with Weston scoring the next four points of the game to push the edge back to nine, 58-49.

Rodriguez caught fire at that point, kicking off the Brandeis comeback effort with a steal and easy lay-in. After a Vitale theft that led to a Jackson lay-in cut the Brandeis deficit to five, Weston hit a lay-up for the Pioneers to slow the Judges' momentum. Weston then committed a foul, sending Rodriguez to the line to hit a pair. Jackson reached in and poked the ball free on Smith's next possession, and Hodges found Rodriguez on the break for a lay-up, making it a one-possession game, 60-57, with 3:27 to go. Both teams came up empty on their next chances, but Parkmond hit 1-of-2 from the line to push the lead back to four. Vitale found Rodriguez underneath on the next possession, capping a 10-2 run that got the Judges within 61-59 with just 2:19 on the clock.

Both teams missed 3-point attempts on their next chances, and Parkmond again got to the line and converted just one foul shot to keep it a one-possession game, 62-59, with 1:50 left. Vitale converted a jumper from the right wing with 1:26 left to get Brandeis within one point for the first time in the second half. On the Pioneers' next possession, the Judges got a terrific defensive stop, with Vitale blocking a Smith jumper as the shot clock was expiring to give Brandeis a chance to take the lead with just over 51 seconds remaining. On the ensuing possession, the Pioneers were able to get hands on the ball to deflect it, and they were able to come away with a scramble. Brandeis tried to pressure the ball as it went the other way, and they also forced their opponents to fumble the ball, but Smith was able to control possession, eventually getting to the line, as Collins connected on two free throws with four seconds left to put the Pioneers up 64-61. Brandeis sophomore Nikki  Laskaris (Swampscott, Mass./Swampscott) was able to get one last desperation 3-point shot off at the buzzer, but it was off the mark, allowing Smith to advance.

Brandeis closes its 2013-14 campaign with its first winning record since 2009-10 and its first postseason berth since 2008-09. The Judges return three of their top five scorers and two of their top four rebounders for next season, while hoping for the return of 2013 All-UAA guard Hannah Cain, who missed this season with an injury.