North puts up career-high 28 points, but women’s basketball falls just short of third straight NESCAC title

Tufts forward/center Michela North, LA'17, jumps for a layup in the women's basketball game against Amherst on Feb. 28, 2016. Laura de Armas / The Tufts Daily

As the Patriots in 2008 and numerous other great teams in history have found out the hard way, perfect regular seasons aren’t always followed by championships. Tufts women’s basketball team learned the same lesson unfortunately yesterday.

No. 1-seeded Tufts duked it out with No. 2-seeded Amherst on the Cousens Gym court yesterday in a 40-minute battle for the 2016 NESCAC crown but ultimately could not come away with the program’s third straight conference championship. The visitors were able to hold Tufts’ offense down just enough to come away with the 50-49 victory and win Amherst’s sixth overall NESCAC title and its sixth in the last nine years.

Tufts went undefeated (10-0) in NESCAC play this season, beating Amherst 52-51 in a historic Feb. 6 showdown for Amherst’s only loss all season long and first loss at home since Jan. 31, 2009. Going into the weekend, Tufts was ranked fourth nationally in the latest poll and Amherst was ranked fifth, so although Amherst gets the automatic NCAA bid with their title, Tufts will undoubtedly also be receiving an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament today as well with the team’s 22-2 overall record.

“We won [18] games in a row before this—and we only had [2] losses [on the season],” senior tri-captain guard Emma Roberson said. “As a senior, I am so happy to be ending the year to be able say that we still get another game. As much as it stinks that we lost, knowing going into this weekend that we will have an NCAA tournament game coming up — I’m happy, and I’m confident in our team that we’ll bounce back from this.”

The championship match-up featured one of the best offenses in the nation in Amherst facing off against one of the best defenses in the nation in Tufts, and unsurprisingly the game came down to the wire just like earlier in the month.

Going into the contest, the Jumbos knew that they’d have to stop the Purple and White’s seemingly unstoppable offense to take home the crown, and they focused on shutting down the visitors’ three-point shooting and limiting their drives to the hoop. Tufts coach Carla Berube laid it out simply before the game.

“They’ve got some really great scorers and slashers and they run their offense well, they can shoot the 3 well,” Berube said. “We’ve got to bring our defense and take care of the ball.”

“We know Amherst well, they’re a big NESCAC rival and we know all of their players,” Roberson said. “We know they’re all offensive-minded. They can all score, they can all shoot, they can all get to the rim, so a big part of [yesterday] was limiting their three-point shot, and also trying to keep them out of the lane, keep them from attacking the rim. And I think we did a pretty good job of that.”

The Jumbos were almost able to completely shut down the Purple and White’s three-point shooting, allowing them just one three on 15 attempts during the game, though that three-pointer was “a dagger” in Roberson’s words, coming with 1:55 remaining in the game to put the visitors up 48-47. Still, the Jumbo defense can claim success after holding back an offense that had averaged almost 70 points per game and 32.7 percent on their three-point shooting the rest of the season.

Tufts’ aggressive perimeter defense, however, did at times open up the lane and allowed Amherst to drive to the hoop for layups on several inopportune occasions. The Purple and White only managed to shoot 33.3 percent from the field in the relatively low-scoring affair.

On the offensive side, the Jumbos really had only one game plan: junior center Michela North. When Tufts learned right before game time that Amherst sophomore forward Jackie Nagle — one of just two Amherst six-footers and arguably the only player with enough size to effectively guard the six ft. two in. North — would not be playing, Berube emphasized getting the ball in to North for layups and low post shots against the overmatched Amherst guards.

“When we saw she wasn’t playing, we knew right away that I would have a huge advantage in the post,” North said. “I was getting open, and they weren’t really doubling [double-teaming] most of the game, so I was able to go one-on-one in the post and was able to convert on a lot of baskets.”

The Jumbos relied heavily on North for their offense, as the center put up a career-high 28 points to go along with a game high of 13 rebounds. The other nine Tufts players who saw action in the game put up just 21 points combined.

“We knew that they really couldn’t guard Michela [North],” Roberson said. “Michela had a huge advantage in size and we knew that going in and I think we did a great job [utilizing that advantage] and I think that Michela played awesome. I would say of my three years playing with Mic that this is the best game she’s played, and I’m so proud of her. I think she played with a lot of heart and a lot of guts, and she played awesome down low.”

The Jumbos came out hot on Sunday and took an early lead, establishing a 13-4 advantage late in the first quarter. Tufts sophomore forward Melissa Baptista sunk her team’s only three-pointer of the game during that early run as part of a five-point early showing for the sophomore, and Tufts found itself up 18-10 at the end of one period.

“I think in the first half we were really looking transition and we came out pretty strong and had a nine-point lead [with 2:32 remaining in the first],” sophomore point Lauren Dillon said. “And that’s because we were running on them and trying to get points in transition.”

But Amherst clawed its way back in the second, stifling Tufts’ distance shooting and making it hard for the hosts to get the ball in to North under the hoop while they engineered a run of their own. The Purple and White’s main offensive weapon, junior guard Ali Doswell, put up 10 points in the first half as her team came back to take a 27-26 lead going into the break.

The high-octane, defense-dominated second half never provided a dull moment despite its low scoring. Only once after halftime was it more than a one-possession game, a moment which came early in the third quarter after Tufts made the first two buckets to open the half to go up 31-27. The Jumbos managed to stay on top through a hard-fought third period with another seven points from North and additions from Roberson and Baptista.

The teams entered the fourth quarter with Tufts up 38-37, and both defense locked down. As the Jumbos struggled to make shots from distance, they increasingly relied on North’s size advantage down low.

“A lot of our shots weren’t really falling — and, I mean, the closer range [shots] are the higher percentage [shots] — so that’s what was working for us and we just kept using that,” North said.

The Jumbo offense became even more limited late in the fourth as Baptista, with her aggressive style of play, fouled out with 3:21 left in the game. Baptista was the only other Jumbo besides North to score more than five points in the game, as she finished with nine.

The referees made a number of arguable foul calls, especially in the second half, that drew unpleasant reactions from the Tufts crowd and which — merited or not — certainly hurt the Jumbos with the loss of Baptista.

Doubling down on their playing down low strategy, Dillon and the other Jumbos looked to get the ball into North on nearly every possession in the fourth quarter, and she kept her team in the game with nine fourth quarter points. The Jumbos managed to stay on top for most of the quarter, but Amherst’s dagger three-pointer from Ali Doswell’s sister and fellow junior guard Meredith Doswell at the 1:55 mark put the visitors up 48-47.

A Tufts turnover on their next possession led to an Amherst layup that put the hosts in a tight spot. But coming out of a Tufts time-out, Dillon found North under the net for the layup to bring the score to 50-49 with just under a minute to go.

The Jumbos’ intensity on the defensive end caused Amherst to miss what should have been a makeable layup and North grabbed the rebound as her team took a time-out with 27 seconds left to plan out their final plays.

With the clock running out, Dillon dribbled at the top of the key as the Jumbos struggled to get open, and after a few passes around the perimeter senior forward Maura Folliard threw up a shot from behind the arc that bounced off the rim. Dillon was able to grab the rebound and the Jumbos called one last time-out with 4 seconds on the clock.

Going back to their tested strategy, the Jumbos inbounded to North in the post once again, but under pressure from multiple Purple and White players she just managed to get a shot off that couldn’t find the net. Amherst sophomore guard Hannah Hackley grabbed the rebound and held onto the ball as the buzzer went off and her team celebrated the victory.

“We actually executed the play like our coach drew it up,” North said. “I was supposed to get a double screen and get the ball on the block. I had three people on me, but there were only 3 seconds left so I knew I had to shoot it fairly quickly, and I just went up with it. I had three people hanging off my arm, so I did the best I could.”

“[The referees] didn’t call anything on it, which. . .could be argued,” North continued with a chuckle.

The Jumbos are confident, though, that the loss will only spur them to fight harder to prove themselves in the NCAA tournament.

“It was pretty tough to see them cutting down our nets, but I mean I guess that gives us more fuel to our fire going into the NCAAs,” North said. “It’s gonna inspire us to work even harder and bring more energy and give it all we’ve got, because now it’s survive and advance, and if you lose you’re done.”

The team also knows that they can use the loss as a learning tool going forward for NCAAs.

“Defensively I think we did [meet our goals for the game],” Dillon said. “They’re one of the best offensive teams that we’ll face and we held them to 50 points. Offensively I think we could have executed better, and we know we can. They’re a good defense, but we straight up definitely had to execute better, which we worked on a lot this past week. And we made some dumb turnovers, probably should have made some more foul shots. But overall, at least defensively, we executed our game plan.”

The loss to Amherst ends Tufts’ 18-game winning streak and 31-game home winning streak as the team has been fairly unstoppable through 2016 so far. Especially after taking down an overmatched Colby team in the semifinals on Saturday in a 62-42 win in which most of the bench players saw action. That game, against one of the NESCAC’s top teams, saw Tufts look so dominant that Colby fans were heard making remarks such as “it’s not fair” and “we knew it would be bad, but we didn’t expect this.”

The Jumbos’ chances of hosting their first NCAA game are also good considering their high national ranking. The Daily had to go to press before Tufts’ opponent in the first round was announced today, but it is certain that the team will be practicing hard this week to avoid a repeat of yesterday and to make another deep postseason run.