For a moment this past weekend, it looked like the No. 4 women’s basketball team was at risk of dropping its first NESCAC game of the season. The Jumbos were down three with just 19.7 seconds left to play at Hamilton’s Margaret Bundy Scott Field House on Friday night after committing a foul and giving the Continentals two free throws to all but clinch the game.
The following day, playing at Williams in Tufts’ last away game of the regular season, another scare ensued: the Ephs clawed their way to a 48-47 lead with just 1:50 left to play in regulation. Again, the Jumbos found themselves in jeopardy of losing the chance to claim the top spot in the NESCAC tournament, which will begin Feb. 21.
In two of its closest games of the season, Tufts battled through adversity, escaping the long weekend road trip with its seventh and eighth NESCAC wins of the season. Taking Hamilton to overtime, Tufts went on to shoot 5 of 5 from the floor in the extra period en route to a 73-66 win, and free throws down the stretch were the key to a 54-50 defeat of Williams the next day.
It may be no coincidence, however, that the Jumbos find themselves in tighter, hard-fought games as opponents nearing the end of their regular seasons look for big wins to push for a postseason bid. Being forced to stay composed and focused in games like these will assist the team in its upcoming contests and prepare them for the postseason.
“Definitely learned a lot from this weekend. I think, getting close to the playoffs, everyone is going to be fighting for their lives, so they’re gonna give us their best games,” junior guard Emma Roberson said. “So we’re definitely going to have a lot more games that will be that close. Being able, at the end of games, to execute offensively, get stops when we need it, hit your free throws, making stops at the end when we need to score — all those things … those high-pressure situations when the game is close at the end will definitely help us for future playoff games.”
The Hamilton game on Friday night was one of runs right down until the very end of regulation. Tufts started with the hot hand, taking an 11-5 lead at the 15:36 mark in the first half. Hamilton, however, responded with its own run, working up to a 24-17 advantage with just under eight minutes to play in the first stanza. Junior forward Sam Graber and first-year guard Lauren Getman led the Continentals with 10 and six points respectively in the first half. Senior tri-captain guard Hannah Foley led Tufts in the first half with 11 points, and the Jumbos ended the half with a 14-4 run to take a 31-28 lead.
The second half was even closer than the first, with Hamilton taking a 56-55 lead with just over a minute to play after Graber hit two free throws. Tufts then turned the ball over on a shot clock violation and sent Hamilton sophomore Caroline Barrett to the line with a foul on the next possession. Barrett drilled the free throws and pushed the Continentals’ lead to three with under 20 seconds to go.
Foley dribbled up the court and found sophomore guard Josie Lee open on the left wing. Of the 11 points Lee scored off the bench for the Jumbos, these next three would be the most crucial. She had an open look at the basket from beyond the arc and sunk the shot to knot the game at 58 with just 9.9 seconds remaining. The Jumbos’ defense would take care of stifling any last-minute chance for the Continentals, and the game headed to overtime.
In the final period, Tufts took care of business after Foley and Graber hit a shot apiece to tie the game at 60. With four minutes to play, sophomore center Michela North started a 9-0 run on a basket in the paint. Senior tri-captain forward Hayley Kanner and North then traded baskets until the Jumbos had built a 69-60 lead with two minutes left. Hamilton could not muster enough to overcome the deficit despite a last-second layup from Graber, and Tufts was able to seal the win with free throws from Lee and Foley.
North finished with a double-double of 21 points and 10 rebounds, while Kanner matched the 21 points and added seven blocks. Foley notched 18 points and first-year guard Lauren Dillon picked up seven assists.
Getman picked up 16 points for the Continentals, but it was Graber’s impressive 27 points that led the team and the game. The performance was not out of character for Graber; she leads the conference with 18.2 points per game. Slowing down players like Graber and Williams senior guard Ellen Cook — who Tufts would face off against on Saturday — is certainly no easy task — but it is something the team takes seriously in preparing for games. It is constantly watching film to scout the players and setting up situations in practice to mimic the opposing players’ tendencies.
“It’s tough trying to shut down a team’s best player when they can just go off at times, but we try to match them up with one of our best defenders — either Hannah Foley or Emma [Roberson], because we know they’re both really fast and can defend really well,” North said. “So we try to match them up that way and then we make sure the help defense is always there — the player goes by them, we have to have the next rotation there so that they can’t get to the basket. But yeah, a lot of times it is hard to shut them down and when they go on runs we just have to try and work on getting one stop at a time, and that’s really [what] we all we focus on.”
Against Williams, Tufts found itself down at halftime by seven points, 23-16. The Jumbos shot just 20 percent in the first half and committed nine turnovers. Though the Jumbos fared better in the second half, the eventual victory was no easier to claim than the game the previous night.
Despite starting the second stanza with nine straight points to take a 25-23 lead, the Jumbos could not quite run away with the game. Dillon tacked on five more points to lift Tufts to a 34-26 lead almost halfway through the period, but Cook came alive for Williams in the second half, scoring 13 of her 15 total points in the game’s final 20 minutes. She scored six straight within a minute of the game’s end to close Tufts’ lead to just two points.
The Jumbos were again able to create some momentum with an eight-point run that led to another 10-point lead with nine minutes to play, but again Williams fought back for the lead. The Ephs, led by seven points and two 3-pointers over the stretch from Cook, scored 16 points compared to just five from the Jumbos and took a one-point lead with around two minutes remaining in regulation.
Ultimately, Tufts won the game in the final minutes due to its rebounding and free throws. Foley, North and Kanner combined for the ensuing seven points — all on free throws — while clutch rebounds from Dillon on defense and Foley on offense kept the ball out of Williams’ hands.
North tacked on 16 points and 11 rebounds, while Foley was one rebound shy of a double-double with 13 points and nine boards. Roberson played very well overall with a stat line of eight points, six rebounds and four steals.
Tufts is in store for yet another weekend of highly competitive conference play when it takes on Colby Friday night and co-conference leader Bowdoin Saturday at Cousens Gym. In order to keep the hopes of a No. 1 NESCAC seed alive for the postseason tournament, Tufts will most likely have to win both games. Though neither will be particularly easy as Colby will fight to stay in the playoff picture and Bowdoin is battling for sole ownership of the top seed, the matchup with the Polar Bears will be a contest of the league’s two best teams by record, a possible foreshadowing of this year’s conference championship.
“We’re definitely looking forward to playing Bowdoin,” Roberson said. “They’re a great team, they play with a lot of confidence and energy, so we’ve kind of been looking forward to that game because it’s always a battle with them and it’s always a really fun game. But right now we’re focusing on Colby because they’re having a great season and they’re a tough team too. So this week we’re really going to focus on Colby Friday night, getting past them because if we don’t beat them then we won’t be fighting for that No. 1 spot. We’re at home, which we’re excited about. It’s always nice to play at home and not have to travel and beating two teams on the road is tough. Taking it one game at a time, focusing on Colby and then after Colby we’ll focus on Bowdoin.”