‘I just let it fly.’ Transylvania has all the answers in advancing to first NCAA finals.

Transylvania University Athletics

Transylvania University has earned every bit of its hard-fought undefeated season, never more so than in Saturday night’s national semifinals.

Playing what amounted to a road game on a neutral court 45 minutes from their opponent’s campus, the Pioneers made clutch play after clutch play to defeat Smith College 76-65 in the Final Four of the NCAA Division III Women’s Basketball Tournament at Oosting Gymnasium in Hartford, Conn.

The victory sends Transylvania (32-0) to the school’s first-ever national championship game, to be played April 1 in Dallas, at the same site and location of this year’s NCAA Division I and II finals. The Pioneers, who have won 59 of their last 60 games dating to last season, will face another team that is undefeated in 2022-23 for the NCAA title. Christopher Newport University of Newport News, Va. (31-0) defeated Rhode Island College 56-51 in Saturday’s first national semifinal at Hartford.

Christopher Newport and Transylvania opened the season ranked No. 4 and No. 5, respectively, in the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association Division III poll and enter the national championship game ranked No. 1 and No. 2.

Senior leader Madison Kellione made nine of 13 field goal attempts, two of three three-point tries and four of five free throws to spur Transylvania with 24 points, nine rebounds and four assists. She seemed to have an answer every time Smith College drew close in the second half and brought its sizable “home crowd” from Northampton, Mass., to its feet.

Smith College (30-2) trimmed Transy’s lead to 69-64 with 2:13 to play on a jumper from the right elbow by Ally Yamada, and the Smith faithful erupted. “Sweaty-palms time,” the game announcer on the NCAA.com livestream shouted over the excited crowd of 2,058 as Kellione dribbled back up the floor.

Before a drop of perspiration could appear, Kellione stepped behind a pick at the top of the arc and rose up for a three-pointer that rattled home with two minutes to play, killing Smith’s hopes of a comeback.

“I wasn’t really thinking about much at that point,” Kellione told d3hoops.com afterward. “I was open so I just let it fly. But I give all the credit to my teammates. We wouldn’t be where we are today without the great fight in this team.”

Transylvania played its two games in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference Tournament and its first four contests in this year’s NCAA Tournament on its home floor at the Clive M. Beck Center, but the Pioneers were ready from the jump in their first game outside Lexington since Feb. 14.

Baskets by Kennedi Stacy, Kellione and Laken Ball opened a 6-0 lead for Transylvania to keep the crowd at bay. Smith overtook the Pioneers for a good segment of the first half, leading by as many as five with 5:51 to go, but Transy closed the second quarter on a 16-4 run to seize a 38-31 lead at halftime. Kellione scored seven, Emilie Teall five and Dasia Thornton four during the breakaway.

Smith College struggled after Morgan Morrison, the WBCA National Player of the Year in Division III, was called for her second foul halfway through the second quarter and went to the bench.

Smith College’s Morrison continued to deal with foul trouble in the third period, receiving two more fouls in the first minute-and-a-half of the quarter. Without the national player of the year on the floor, Transy went to work again, building its lead to 57-42 after three quarters.

The 5-foot-11 Thornton gave Smith College and Morrison fits, finishing with 18 points and 11 rebounds. Thornton, a senior from Cincinnati, got to the foul line nine times and made six for Transy.

“It’s something, I guess, that comes naturally,” Thornton told d3hoops.com about her ability to draw contact. “I’m not as strong and built like everybody else, but that’s something else that I can do. I have the speed.”

Morrison eventually fouled out with 1:13 left in the game when Kellione was whistled for a charge but the call was reversed. Morrison, a 6-foot senior from Detroit, ended up with 24 points in just 26 minutes of action.

Ball, another senior, joined Kellione and Thornton in double figures with 13 points for Transylvania. Stacy finished with nine points.

Next game

Transylvania vs. Christopher Newport

What: Division III national championship game

When: April 1 at noon EDT

Where: American Airlines Center in Dallas

TV: CBS Sports

Records: Transylvania 32-0, Christopher Newport 31-0

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