Jan. 23—For years, the Bates College women's basketball team has been chasing the top teams in the New England Small College Athletic Conference. This season, they finally caught some of them.
The Bobcats have defeated NESCAC powerhouses Bowdoin (74-70 on Dec. 1) and Amherst (52-49 on Jan. 14). Both opponents were ranked in the top five of the national Division III polls at the time and are still in the Top 25.
Those victories are impressive for a program that failed to post a winning record for eight consecutive years until going 13-12 in 2019-20. The Bobcats have not been to the NCAA Division III tournament since 2006. Even with a 63-52 loss at No. 10 Tufts on Saturday, Bates boasts an 11-4 record, 3-1 in the conference.
"There have been a lot of tough moments in my time here," said Coach Alison Montgomery, in her sixth season with the Bobcats. "Even as we grew and got better, we were still losing to those teams by 20. You have to understand, those teams, usually they reach the Sweet 16, maybe the Elite Eight (in the NCAA tournament). Our eye has been getting to the top of this conference. That 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 had sustained success on the national level.
The gold standard for decades was 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 championship games, the last in 2006.
More recently, Bowdoin has taken the spotlight. Since 1999, the Polar Bears have been to 18 NCAA tournaments and three national championship games, including the last two in 2018 and 2019. (The 2020 tournament was halted after the second round because of the pandemic, and the NCAA did not hold a tournament last year.)
Many other Division III women's teams from Maine have experienced success in the past decade. St. Joseph's College in Standish has been to the NCAA tournament five times since 2014. The University of New England in Biddeford made seven consecutive NCAA tourney appearances from 2012-18. Husson University in Bangor played in the past five NCAA tournaments.
"Division III college basketball in Maine is very strong," said UNE Coach Anthony Ewing. "I think some of it is that a lot of the Maine kids stay home to go to school. Maine is pretty unique, I think. For a small state, the level of basketball is pretty high. People care about it, kids care about it."
This year, Bates has taken its game to another level. While the team just missed breaking into the Top 25 last week (coming in at No. 26 on the D3hoops.com poll), the Bobcats have their supporters. One is Bowdoin's first-year coach, Sacha Santimano.
"Bates is crazy strong this year," she said. "I feel they've been overlooked and continue to be overlooked. ... I've advocated for them. They are legit. I don't know what people are thinking."
Montgomery and the Bobcats honestly don't care what the voters are thinking. They're more concerned with keeping their focus on the task ahead, which is to continue to improve. She knows that Bates will not sneak up on anyone else. One 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," said Montgomery. "It comes with way more responsibility and we need way more maturity and the ability to rise to the occasion."
Montgomery played basketball at Bangor High and Bowdoin. She came to Bates from the U.S. Naval Academy, where she spent four years as an assistant to Stefanie Pemper, her coach at Bowdoin. Montgomery knew it was going to take time to build the program.
Her first team, in the 2015-16 season, won nine games. The 2019-20 team went 13-12, losing to Amherst in the NESCAC quarterfinals. Bates played only two games (1-1) in the COVID-19 shortened 2020-21 season.
"I don't know if there's a magic difference," said Montgomery. "Just years in the making, honestly. We've been climbing bit by bit each year, and this is the first year where we're positioned with not only enough talent, but with some nice leadership and upperclass experience. This is something we've been slowly building toward, having a dynamic team.
"It's just taken a bit of time. And on top of it, in that building process, they've developed a lot of confidence."
Junior point guard Meghan Graff, the former star at South Portland High, said there is also a realization among the 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 this year's senior class.
"When we came in we were young, but we were having an impact on the games," she said. "We're finally at that point where we do have a consistent sense of maturity and in-game experience. It took some time to get to this point. But we all realize this is the time to do it. There's no more time to wait around, it won't come together on its own."
Graff has led the team in scoring each of her first two seasons. In fact, her 18.2 points a game as a sophomore led NESCAC, and she's the top scorer in the conference again, 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.
While distributing the ball more this year, she still comes up with big scoring performances when needed. 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 go-ahead three-point play with 30 seconds remaining.
Montgomery said Graff can impact every phase of the game.
"It's not just her skills," said Montgomery. "She's like a coach on the floor in the way she can see things and anticipate things. ... When it comes down to it, she makes plays and she makes big shots. But her teammates have stepped up this year and have played at her level."
The scoring is balanced, 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 a game, leads in rebounds with 8.8 and is second in assists with 27.
"It's just nice having so many different offensive weapons," said Roy, a guard from Bedford, New Hampshire. "There's no pressure on anyone to be the sole scorer, to be the heart of the team. We all share the responsibilities, and that's another reason we've done so well."
The Bobcats allow 57.3 points and force 17.1 turnovers a game. They have a plus-5.2 edge in rebounding.
"That defensive mentality has always been there," said Graff. "It's been part of our culture for the past two, three years. And now that we have success at both ends, it makes us a much better team."
The wins over Bowdoin and Amherst, which has won three national championships since 2011, have certainly shown that progress is being made.
"It's my first time beating them," said Roy. "Each year we've had this goal to beat them. There's an expectation that they're going to be the top teams. So to see us succeed and play well against them was exciting."
"To me, it puts things into perspective," said Graff. "When you reflect on the past years and the tough losses, everyone has worked so hard, and it's really paying off. Everything is starting to come together. We have so many goals and that's just a small achievement and a win along the way. But it shows we're on the right path. Those are good teams and we're right up there with them."
Now, of course, the challenge changes.
"We have to have a winning mentality all the time, no matter if it's Amherst or Bowdoin or Tufts or a team that's not nationally ranked," said Graff. "Every team in our conference is really, really good. With these wins, it's kind of like, we're going to start being the team to beat. We're not the underdogs anymore and we're going to have these teams wanting to beat us. We need to take this as a challenge."
St. Joseph's Coach Mike McDevitt knows what Graff means. The Monks defeated Bowdoin 60-55 on Jan. 1.
"I told the kids to not be thinking we're all that," said McDevitt. "Now we've got to get back to work. A win like that doesn't put extra points on the scoreboard the next game. In fact, it just makes our job that much harder because other teams think, 'They must be good. We've got to bring 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 the NCAA tournament are often faced with strong opponents in the first round.
"When you get to that next level, you learn pretty quickly how tough it is," she said. "There are a lot of competitive D3 schools out there."
And many are in Maine. Schools here cut their teeth against their in-state opponents in the nonconference part of the schedule, preparing for what they all know will be tough league races.
"It's great to have all these great teams in our backyard," said Montgomery. "It absolutely prepares you for your league and can present you with a lot of different challenges. They're just all tough teams. It's great to feel, when you're getting into the meat of your conference schedule, that you've already been challenged."
USM, for example, defeated UNE, which beat St. Joseph's, which beat Bowdoin, which beat UNE twice.
"I'm just grateful that, night in, night out, we have teams that push us to be our absolute best come our conference play," said USM Coach Sam Norris. "Any Maine team plays at a high level."