No. 3 Tufts holds off No. 10 UNE at home

–Tufts junior guard Josie Lee attempts to move the ball around a Fisher defender to make a shot during the second round of the NCAA Div. II Championship on Saturday, March 7, 2015. Evan Sayles / Tufts Daily Archive

In a hotly contested struggle between two nationally ranked teams, No. 3 Tufts beat the visiting No. 10 University of New England (UNE) 55-43. The win moved the Jumbos to 3-0 on the season, while the Nor’easters drop to 3-1. The game was a defensive dogfight, with both teams’ defenses putting pressure on their opponents and leading to missed shots, but the Jumbos were able to sustain a lead and eventually pull away in the final quarter of the game.

Sophomore forward Melissa Baptista notched a double-double, leading Tufts in both rebounding and scoring with 12, while junior center Michela North contributed a double-double of her own, matching Baptista’s rebounding numbers and scoring 10 points.

The game had the makings of a blowout early, with Tufts jumping out to an 8-0 lead. Its defense was particularly effective during this period, with Tufts players aggressively fronting UNE junior center Alicia Brown in the post. Brown stands at 6’4″, two inches taller than North, though North’s active hands and quick feet batted away many entry passes at the beginning of the game.

“We pride ourselves on our defense,” sophomore point guard Lauren Dillon said. “We shut down their main scorers, and our big girls did a great job moving their feet and getting us the ball back.”

With just under six minutes to go in the first quarter, however, UNE switched to a 1-3-1 zone that stymied the Tufts offense.

“Offensively, we couldn’t execute our plays very well,” Dillon said. “We were rattled by their aggressive, unique defense. We scouted them and practiced a lot around it, but they play hard.”

After the Jumbos’ game-opening run, the Nor’easters went on a run of their own, scoring nine unanswered points to take the lead. Senior tri-captain guard Emma Roberson responded by sinking a 3-pointer, regaining a lead that Tufts never relinquished.

After the first quarter ended 15-11 in Tufts’ favor, UNE switched back to a man-on-man defense. The switch back and resulting pressure led to turnovers by the Jumbos, who finished the half with six. The Nor’easters pulled within four with 4:20 left in the half, but fouls and free throws led to a 24-18 Jumbo lead at the break.

Both offenses struggled in the first half, with Tufts shooting 31.3 percent (10 for 32) and UNE shooting just 27.6 percent (eight for 29). Most impressive was the defensive work from the Jumbos who held two of the Nor’easters’ top three scorers, senior captains and guards Alanna Vose and Lauren Hayden, who are averaging 17.3 and 11 points per game respectively, to just six points between the two of them.

“In the first half, it seemed like there was a lid on the rim,” coach Carla Berube said. “We got open shots, but we didn’t hit them. They really packed it inside, so it was hard for Michela to get good looks. But it’s early in the season — if our offense was running smoothly now, what would we have to work on?”

The second half saw Tufts hit more open shots and marginally raise its overall shooting percentage to 32.3 percent. Dillon repeatedly drove into the teeth of the UNE defense and found the open perimeter shooter. She finished the game with six assists as well as three steals that sparked the Jumbos’ offense.

Though good offensive looks came at a premium, Tufts had no problem turning defense into offense, scoring 25 points off of UNE’s 25 turnovers. Baptista was often on the end of the fast breaks, including an and-one that extended Tufts’ lead early in the third quarter.

Of Baptista’s 12 rebounds, six were offensive, and Tufts often converted second-chance opportunities into points, scoring 17 while limiting UNE to just seven. The Jumbos had trouble taking their first chance, many times forcing the ball to North in the post, who was not in a good scoring position, resulting in turnovers or passes back out to the perimeter. These second-chance points and points off of turnovers turned out to be the separation between two teams who otherwise seemed very evenly-matched.

UNE shifted in and out of its 1-3-1 zone for the remainder of the game, responding accordingly to Tufts’ shooters. Meanwhile, Tufts’ defense remained the same, putting high pressure on shooters, fronting the post and jumping the passing lanes. The Jumbos sustained their lead throughout the third quarter, ending it 35-29 behind solid performances from North and Baptista.

The fourth quarter saw Tufts extend its lead to 15, the largest of the game. UNE pulled within five with 6:20 remaining, following back-to-back baskets by Brown, but this was the closest the score got all half. Fouls at the end of the game led to free throws that extended Tufts’ lead, but this was another area that the Jumbos struggled in: they went just 10-22 from the stripe. A last-second 3 for the Nor’easters cut the score to 55-43 when the buzzer sounded.

“We have a lot to improve on, but I’m happy with the effort and how the team grinded it out — especially on defense and in transition,” Berube said. “We gave up some second-chance opportunities, missed some boxouts and gave them some life, but I thought we were scrappy and tough and made it difficult on them.”

Going forward, Tufts faces Bowdoin (2-2) away on Saturday, Dec. 5.

“We know that everybody is gunning for us,” Dillon said. “I think it puts pressure on the teams we play, not on us. They all want to be the one to knock us off — and we know that before we go into games.”