GENEVA — Three points. Three measly points.
That’s how close the William Smith basketball team came to earning a spot in the NCAA Division III tournament last year.
The Herons made a strong late-season run — winning three of their last four — to earn a spot in the Liberty League tournament. They knocked off top-seeded Vassar in the semis before falling to St. Lawrence ... 51-48.
Those three points have haunted — and motivated — the Herons ever since.
“The end of last year was bitter-sweet. It was a rough way to lose: Three points, championship game, that close to the NCAA tournament,” William Smith coach Lindsay Drury Sharman said. “It was definitely a catalyst in the offseason. We constantly say to each other, ‘Three points.’ We talk about it all the time.
“There we were, back against the wall in the second half (of the season), and we played our best,” Drury Sharman continued. “We really need to (play like) we have our back against the wall early in the season. We have a lot to prove; we want to have that mentality from the start of the season.”
The Herons open their 2013-14 campaign Friday against 13th-ranked Ithaca. The opening tip-off is 6 p.m. at Bristol Gym.
William Smith has eight players back from last season, led by seniors Erin O’Brien, Jacqueline Murphy and Sasha Borenstein. Molly Breen, a junior, is in her fourth year of eligibility.
Chloe Hayter and Ali Pliszka are juniors; the rest of the roster is made up of six first-years and a pair of sophomores (Lauren Brustein and Hailey Dietrich).
Drury Sharman and her coaching staff (Gabrielle Guynan, Charlie Evangelista) will lean on the veterans to help guide the younger group, especially early on. That doesn’t mean the rookies won’t have anything to offer, though.
A number of newcomers, including Melanie Patterson and Courtney Chase, were four-year players for at respective high schools; Patterson was an All-State selection at Vestal. In addition, Alyssa DiCampli was a key member of a powerhouse Irvington team that won four consecutive New York State championships. Mary Buck (5-foot-11, Skaneateles), Krista Anken (5-9, Rome Free Academy) and Gabrielle Eure (6-0, East Syracuse Minoa) round out the rookie class.
“I think because we have so much experience from a starting and getting a lot of minutes standpoint that it isn’t as noticeable,” Drury Sharman said, referring to the gap in classes. “In practices it’s been a matter of filling that gap, pushing that group that’s experienced and bringing along the first-years at a reasonable pace.
“Erin and Jacqueline are our captains, but we’re also relying a lot on Sasha and Molly to be leaders.”
Hayter had a breakout season as a sophomore, leading the Herons at 14.5 points per game to go with 7.7 rebounds.
“I thought Chloe took such a leap from her first year to her sophomore year. And already I feel like she’s taken such a leap from her sophomore to junior year,” Drury Sharman said. “I see her continuing to be a force.”
O’Brien averaged nine points per game and a team-high 3.7 assists. Murphy — at 5-foot-4 — led the Herons and was third in the Liberty League at 8.4 rebounds per game. Borenstein averaged 9.6 per game and shot 36 percent from 3-point range (92 of 259).
Hayter was a Liberty League first-team selection last year while O’Brien earned honorable mention status.
“Our emphasis in the past early has been on getting better and learning,” Drury Sharman said. “And while that’s a positive message, I think we’ve got to have more of a sense of urgency in the first half of the season. Those games do matter and they are important.”