Tonight, for the first time ever, March Madness will hit Medford.
After losing to No. 1 Amherst in the finals of the NESCAC championship, the women’s basketball team received an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament and is hosting Misericordia University tonight at Cousens Gymnasium.
The Jumbos have now qualified for the tournament four times in the last five years. This year, however, will be the first time in school history that Tufts will host an NCAA basketball regional.
“Finishing off the season so well, it makes it that much more exciting,” said senior guard Tiffany Kornegay, who was recently named NESCAC Defensive Player of the Year after finishing in the top three in the conference in both rebounding and steals per game. “It will be great to play [at home] with a lot of family and a lot of fans here. I don’t want to lose my last game on my home floor. It makes it that much more motivating.”
“It’s really exciting even just walking into the gym,” junior co-captain Bre Dufault said. “We had so much energy going into practice today. It’s a fun part of the season and we are lucky enough not only to get into the NCAA [tournament] but also to host it.”
Misericordia, a Catholic university in northeast Pennsylvania, enters its first ever NCAA tournament fresh off a 65-54 victory over King’s College in the Freedom Conference Championship Saturday. The Cougars own a 17-10 record, an impressive feat considering their athletic director, Dave Martin, took over as their interim head coach in the middle of their season.
Johns Hopkins University and the University of New England are the final two squads competing in the regional at Cousens. Johns Hopkins, a team that was ranked in the top 25 for much of the season, finished 23-4 after falling to Muhlenberg College in the Centennial Conference Championship.
The Nor’Easters of New England make their second NCAA tournament appearance in the last three years after ending the regular season with a 22-5 record.
In the NESCAC championship against Amherst, the Jumbos played a phenomenal first half of basketball before collapsing after the intermission. Other than the second half of that game, Tufts has recently succeeded in playing their brand of basketball, centered around teamwork and unselfishness on both sides of the ball.
The Jumbos’ defense, in particular, has been remarkable thus far, allowing a meager 45.7 points and forcing nearly 19 turnovers per game. The Jumbos also finished second in the NESCAC in rebounding margin, securing over six more boards per game than their opponents. In particular, the Jumbos have a knack for containing their opponents’ best players, which they displayed against Bowdoin in the NESCAC semifinals by holding All-NESCAC first teamer and conference scoring champion Jill Henrickson to just 10 points on 33 percent shooting from the field.
“We just have to keep playing like we’ve been playing all season,” Kornegay said. “We will make it into a track meet and score that way while we shut them down on defense.”
Although it is their first trip to the tournament, the Cougars have a strong squad with the potential to give the Jumbos a run for their money. They are paced by superstar Christine Marks, the reigning Freedom Conference Player of the Year, who comes into Friday’s matchup averaging 19 points and 10.4 rebounds per game while shooting a staggering 84 percent from the charity stripe. The 6-foot-1 center was previously named to the 2010-2011 all-region team and has set several single-season records for the Cougars.
The Jumbos will also need to focus on containing junior point guard Tyann McDaniel, who is the focal point of the Misericordia attack. McDaniel, a three-year starter, is an elite shooter from downtown, hitting 61 three-pointers over the course of the season, and can also be a game-changer on the glass.
“[Marks] is crazy on the offensive boards,” said Kornegay, offering high praise coming from one of the best rebounders in the NESCAC. “She gets a lot of points that way and she’s definitely scrappy. She will be a problem if we don’t box out or rebound.”
The winners of tonight’s games will face off tomorrow at 7 p.m., and the winner of the four-team regional will advance to the Sweet 16 on March 9.
“We just need to come out with confidence and play intense [defense], and hopefully we will get through tomorrow,” Dufault said.
“It’s not going to be easy by any means,” Kornegay said. “But if we play the way we have been playing, we can definitely be successful.”