Bates women’s basketball wants to take that next big step

Players celebrate after the Bates College women’s basketball team defeated Amherst 52-49 at Alumni Gym in Lewiston on January 14. Amherst was ranked No. 3 in the nation in NCAA Division III at the time. Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College

The Bates College women’s basketball team has been chasing the top teams in the New England Small College Athletic Conference for years. This season they finally caught a few.

The Bobcats defeated NESCAC powerhouses Bowdoin (74-70 on Dec. 1) and Amherst (52-49 on Jan. 14). Both opponents were in the top five in the national Division III polls at the time and are still in the Top 25.

Those wins are impressive for a program that failed to set a winning record eight years in a row until 13-12 in 2019-20. The Bobcats have not been to the NCAA Division III tournament since 2006. Even with a 63-52 loss to No. 10 Tufts on Saturday, Bates has a record of 11-4, 3-1 in the conference.

“There have been many difficult moments in my time here,” said coach Alison Montgomery in her sixth season with the Bobcats. “Even as we grew and got better, we still lost with 20 of those teams. You have to understand that those teams usually reach the Sweet 16, maybe the Elite Eight (in the NCAA tournament). Our eye is on the top of this conference, which means there is no limit to what you can do at the national level.”

Bates is trying to take that next big step in Division III women’s basketball, in a state where several schools have enjoyed continued success nationally.

For decades, the gold standard has been the University of Southern Maine. The Huskies made 26 appearances in the NCAA D-III tournament from 1986 to 2013. They played in three national championships, the last in 2006.

More recently, Bowdoin has been in the spotlight. Since 1999, the Polar Bears have attended 18 NCAA tournaments and three National Championships, including the final two in 2018 and 2019. (The 2020 tournament was halted after the second round due to the pandemic, and the NCAA held no tournament last year.)

Many other Maine Division III women’s teams have had success over the past decade. St. Joseph’s College in Standish has been to the NCAA tournament five times since 2014. The University of New England at Biddeford played the NCAA seven consecutive times from 2012 to 18. Husson University in Bangor has played in the past five NCAA tournaments.

“Division III college basketball in Maine is very strong,” said UNE coach Anthony Ewing. “I think part of it is that a lot of Maine kids stay home to go to school. Maine is quite unique, I think. For a small state, the level of basketball is quite high. People think it’s important, kids think it’s important.”

Senior Mia Roy, left, and junior Meghan Graff have given Bates College its best start in years. Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College

This year, Bates has taken his game to another level. While the team just missed the Top 25 last week (ranked number 26 in the survey), the Bobcats have their supporters. One is Bowdoin’s freshman coach, Sacha Santimano.

“Bates is insanely strong this year,” she said. “I feel they have been overlooked and continue to be overlooked. … I have pleaded for them. They are legit. I don’t know what people think.”

Montgomery and the Bobcats honestly don’t care what voters think. They are more concerned with keeping their focus on the task at hand, which is to keep improving. She knows Bates won’t sneak up on anyone else. A day after beating Amherst, as the team gathered in the locker room before playing Hamilton, Montgomery drew a giant target on the whiteboard in the locker room and stuck an arrow into the Bates logo.

“Everyone wants success,” Montgomery said. “It comes with a lot more responsibility and we need a lot more maturity and the ability to seize the opportunity.”

Montgomery played basketball at Bangor High and Bowdoin. She came to Bates from the US Naval Academy, where she was an assistant to Stefanie Pemper, her coach at Bowdoin, for four years. Montgomery knew it would take time to build the program.

Her first team won nine games in the 2015-16 season. The 2019-20 team went 13-12, losing to Amherst in the quarterfinals of NESCAC. Bates played just two games (1-1) in the COVID-19 shortened 2020-21 season.

Bates Coach Alison Montgomery, who played at Bangor High and Bowdoin, is in her sixth year with the Bobcats. She took over a program that hadn’t had a winning season in five years. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

“I don’t know if there’s a magic difference,” Montgomery said. “Frankly, years in the making. We’ve been moving up little by little every year and this is the first year where we’ve not only got enough talent, but nice upper-class leadership and experience. This is something we are slowly working towards, with a dynamic team.

“It just took some time. Moreover, they have developed a lot of confidence in that building process.”

Junior point guard Meghan Graff, the former star at South Portland High, said there is also a realization among juniors and seniors that time is running out. Graff took a leave of absence from school last year so she wouldn’t waste a basketball season. She was recruited with the senior class this year.

“When we came in, we were young, but we had an impact on the games,” she said. “Finally, we’re at that point where we have a consistent sense of maturity and in-game experience. It took some time to get to this point. But we all realize that now is the time to do it. There is no more time to wait, it will not come together on its own.”

Graff led the team in scoring each of its first two seasons. In fact, she led 18.2 points per game as a sophomore at NESCAC, and she is again the conference’s top scorer, averaging 16.2 points. She also leads the Bobcats in assists (65) and minutes played (31.6 per game) and is second in steals with 21.

Even though she’s more of the ball this year, she’s still coming up with big scoring performances when the need arises. She scored 30 in the win against Bowdoin and 21 against Amherst. In a 73-72 win over St. Joseph’s on Jan. 11, she had 16 points, including a three-point lead with 30 seconds left.

South Portland junior point guard Meghan Graff led Bates in scoring in each of her first two seasons. This year she leads NESCAC with an average of 16.2 points per game. Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College

Montgomery said Graff can influence every stage of the game.

“It’s not just her skills,” Montgomery said. “She’s like a coach on the floor in the way she can see and anticipate things. … When it comes down to it, she makes plays and takes big shots. But her teammates have stepped up this year and played at her level.”

The score is even, with junior Brianna Gadaleta averaging 11.9 points, senior Mia Roy 11.8 and sophomore Morgan Kennedy 11.2. Senior Ariana Dalia scores 7.4 points per game, leads in rebounds with 8.8 and is second in assists with 27.

“It’s just nice to have so many different assault weapons,” said Roy, a security guard from Bedford, New Hampshire. “There is no pressure on anyone to be the only goalscorer, to be the heart of the team. We all share responsibilities and that’s another reason why we’ve done so well.”

The Bobcats allow 57.3 points and command 17.1 turnover per game. They have a plus-5.2 lead in rebounding.

“That defensive mentality has always been there,” Graff said. “It has been part of our culture for two or three years now. And now that we’ve had success on both sides, we’ve become a much better team.”

Senior Mia Roy, left, and her Bates teammates have taken victories over Bowdoin and Amherst this season. “It’s the first time I beat them,” she says. “Every year we had this goal to beat them. They are expected to be the top teams. So it was exciting to see us succeed and play well against them.” Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College

The victories over Bowdoin and Amherst, who have won three national championships since 2011, have certainly shown that progress is being made.

“It’s my first time beating them,” Roy said. “Every year we had this goal to beat them. They are expected to be the top teams. So it was exciting to see us succeed and play well against them.”

“For me, it puts things in perspective,” Graff said. “If you look back on the past years and the heavy losses, everyone has worked so hard and it is paying off. Everything starts to come together. We have so many goals and that’s just a small achievement and a win. But it shows that we are on the right track. Those are good teams and we’re all for it.”

Now, of course, the challenge changes.

“We always have to have a winning mentality whether it’s Amherst or Bowdoin or Tufts or a team that is not nationally ranked,” Graff said. “Every team in our conference is really, really good. With these wins, it’s kind of like we’re going to be the team to beat. We are not the underdogs anymore and we will have these teams that want to beat us. We have to see this as a challenge.”

St. Joseph’s Coach Mike McDevitt knows what Graff means. The Monks defeated Bowdoin 60-55 on January 1.

“I told the kids not to think we all are,” McDevitt said. “Now we have to get back to work. Such a win does not add extra points to the scoreboard the next game. In fact, it just makes our job harder because other teams think, ‘They have to be good. We have to do our best.’”

The challenge for Maine’s Division III teams is to prove they can win outside the region. Kissy Walker, in her 31st season as head coach at Husson, said the Maine teams that make up the NCAA tournament often face strong opponents in the first round.

“When you get to that next level, you learn pretty quickly how hard it is,” she said. “There are a lot of competing D3 schools out there.”

And many are in Maine. Schools here are cutting their teeth against their in-state opponents in the non-conference portion of the schedule, preparing for what they all know will be tough competition racing.

“It’s great to have all these great teams in our backyard,” said Montgomery. “It definitely prepares you for your competition and can present you with many different challenges. They are just all strong teams. It’s great to feel like you’ve already been challenged when you’re working on your conference schedule.”

For example, USM beat UNE, who beat St. Joseph’s, who beat Bowdoin, who beat UNE twice.

“I’m just thankful that we have teams night in, night out that push us to be our absolute best at our conference,” said USM coach Sam Norris. “Every Maine team plays at a high level.”

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