The 18-2 Jumbos moved up to No. 8 nationally, following a series of strong performances capped off by Tuesday’s 60-41 win over the 5-13 Rhode Island College (RIC) Anchormen. The victory was their 13th in a row, continuing a streak that started on Dec. 29, 2015 at Baruch College. With the exception of a close game at Bowdoin, all the games have been won by eight or more points.
Tuesday’s game featured the quick ball movement and dominant rebounding that have aided the Jumbos throughout the team’s streak. Tufts grabbed 41 rebounds to RIC’s 28 and received a windfall of 22 assists and 21 points from bench players.
Neither team had a dominant shooting night, as both shot well under 50 percent from the field. The Jumbos have been able to consistently rely on their nationally third-ranked scoring defense, which managed seven steals and four blocks. Three of the blocks came from first-year forward Katie Martensen, who played 14 minutes.
Junior center Michela North led the Jumbos in scoring on the night with 16 points, and sophomore forward Melissa Baptista and junior guard Josie Lee tied for the most rebounds with six.
“We’ve been executing our plays better,” Baptista said. “Defense has definitely been our number one focus, both [in] practice and in games. [On Tuesday] we had a good first half but we kind of fell off in the third quarter, so in the fourth quarter we just came with fire; we wanted to score and played good defense.”
Tuesday’s game followed a Saturday win over 6-12 Bates on the road. The Bobcats, contrary to what their record would suggest, kept up with the Jumbos for most of the game.
“We’ve been playing really well on defense and paying attention to our scouts,” North said. “[It’s helpful] knowing the personnel, knowing their tendencies and being able to defend them. Being able to execute our defense effectively has really been our strength.”
The Jumbos jumped out to an early lead that only grew throughout the first half, which ended with the team up 42-33. That lead would evaporate in the third quarter. Down 45-37, the Bobcats went on a run that left the game even at 47. But Tufts wouldn’t let the points go unanswered, outscoring Bates 22-6 in the final quarter and capping it off with an 11-0 run to seal the game at 68-53.
Both North and Baptista managed double-doubles in the contest. North scored 11 points and pulled in 11 rebounds, while Baptista put up 25 points and 12 rebounds. Baptista’s strong performance in the game earned her the NESCAC Player of the Week Honor.
“It was pretty awesome,” Baptista said. “A lot of my friends, teammates and coaches all congratulated me. For sure it’s a team effort, for anyone who gets it, but it’s pretty cool for our team to be recognized in that way.”
The Jumbos have just three games left in the regular season, which they expect to win to keep their streak alive and maintain their standing in both the NESCAC and in overall Div. III play as they head into the postseason.
“When we have games against bigger teams, like Williams, coming up, we’ve just got to pump ourselves up,” North said. “We know that everyone is going to bring their best to play against us. Everyone in the NESCAC wants to beat us, as two-time defending champs, so we have to bring our best every time.”
A defensive team at its core, Tufts needs to be more productive than ever on offense as the tournament approaches; the team will no doubt lean on its leading scorers – North, senior guard Emma Roberson and Baptista – for the offense needed to secure wins against premier competition.
“We’ve been trying to score more,” North said. “[We need to] execute our plays and make things happen on offense, and it’s been working for us.”
Tufts will face off against Trinity on Friday, before facing some of its toughest competition of the season on Saturday at No. 3 Amherst.
“Practice [is most important] for sure,” Baptista said. “Amherst can be a very intense game. We’ll start with a lot of defensive drills and make sure we execute our offense. We have to be completely focused from minute one to minute 40. Sometimes we can be a little streaky, we can have a good first half, or a bad third quarter, but with Amherst we have to play at a consistent level.”
Amherst is undefeated this season and will undoubtedly be some of the toughest competition Tufts will face this season. But many on the team relish the chance to face Amherst on its own court.
“It’s really exciting to be able to play them in their home gym,” North said. “They haven’t lost a home game in like five years. We’re all really excited to finally have the chance to play them at home and try to beat them there. The past two years we’ve beaten them in our gym, so the chance to beat them there, on their own court, is really exciting for all of us.”