AMHERST, Mass. – University of Southern Maine women’s basketball coach Gary Fifield wasn’t thrilled with his team’s performance, but the Huskies won an NCAA Division III tournament game Friday night for the first time since 2007, beating Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute 74-63 in the first round at Amherst College.

Curran Leighton and Haley Johnson posted double-doubles, and four Huskies scored in double figures to overcome 15 first-half turnovers.

“We were going faster than we needed to and tried to play too quick,” said Fifield. “It was the outgrowth of some nerves.

“We’re a pretty young team in terms of experience. A game like this, we were able to gut it out because we didn’t execute really well. Hopefully it’s out of our system and we can relax (today).”

Southern Maine (21-8) will meet top-ranked Amherst (28-0) at 5 p.m. today. The Lord Jeffs were a 68-47 first-round winner against the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

“We all have to be on and make sure we work together,” said Johnson.

Leighton scored a game-high 20 points and had 13 rebounds, and Johnson scored 15 points with 11 boards. They helped Southern Maine to a decisive 46-31 advantage in rebounding.

“We know that in these big games, we have to box out and crash the boards,” Johnson said. “We knew (RPI) was big, so we had to make sure we got to the boards.”

“We even had to push them back because even if we boxed out, they could have reached over us and grabbed it,” said Leighton.

Kaylie DeMillo knocked down five 3-pointers en route to her 19 points for the Huskies. Point guard Nicole Paradis added 13 points.

Southern Maine went on a pair of second-half runs to pull away. With the score 32-32, the Huskies scored the next eight points.

After the Engineers (17-11) closed within 43-41 with roughly 10 minutes remaining, DeMillo nailed a clutch 3-pointer to spark a 7-0 run.

“I think we went back inside offensively and get some easy hoops, and on the other end we got some stops,” Fifield said.

Leighton didn’t score in the first 10 minutes of the second half, then responded with six quick points to help the Huskies extend the lead.

“I wouldn’t say they shut me down there, it was more about me,” Leighton said. “It all depends on the offense and what we run.”

Neither team shot well in the first half and both teams turned the ball over more than 10 times. Leighton scored 14 of her 20 points in the first half, including six straight in a 12-2 run that earned the Huskies a 28-24 halftime edge.

The Huskies’ defense played strong throughout most of the game.

They made 14 steals and held RPI to 34.4 percent shooting from the floor.

Laura Easterling led RPI with 15 points. Hillary McKinley and Whitney Coleman had 12 apiece, but Coleman shot 3 of 17.

“We went out and played the defense we played all year, man-to-man,” said Johnson.

“We were told to step out a little so we could help outside on (Coleman),” added Leighton. “We knew she was a big part of their offense so it was important to help.”

This was the first meeting between the schools.

Southern Maine fell in the first round the last two seasons, and Johnson noted how special it felt to advance.

“It’s definitely nice to go to the second round,” she said. “We’re excited for (Saturday), we’re excited about the win (Friday). We just have to go out and play composed.”

“We’ll have to rebound and take care of the basketball,” Fifield said.

“Amherst is very balanced and they have tremendous weapons.”


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