For the past two years, Tufts had gotten it done at home in the postseason. The Jumbos had qualified for the NCAA tournament by winning the NESCAC championship, earned home court advantage and fought their way through dominant first-round wins and overtime thrillers alike to reach the NCAA Div. III championship semifinals, the Final Four.
This year was different. Tufts fell by one point in a heartbreaking loss to Amherst in the NESCAC championship but still earned an at-large bid. The Jumbos again qualified to host the first, second and sectionals rounds, but the men’s basketball team got the nod to host at Cousens Gym because, as NCAA rules stipulate, when both of a school’s teams qualify, the men’s team hosts in even years while the women’s team hosts in odd years. Thus, the women’s team had to forgo the easier home-court route that they took to the last two years’ NCAA semifinals and instead battle through two weekends of road games. Yet despite this new sort of run to the Final Four, one which the program had not yet dealt with in its postseason success, Tufts is back once again, in a position to advance to the NCAA title game.
“I think we played more with a chip on our shoulder because we weren’t home, we weren’t hosting, we weren’t automatically expected to win,” senior tri-captain Emma Roberson said. “We knew that we were playing really talented teams away and that we really had to bring it.”
In a weekend of NCAA Sweet 16 and Elite 8 matchups, the Jumbos took down the previously undefeated University of Scranton Royals on Saturday and the Albright College Lions on Friday. Now in the Final Four, two wins away from a national championship, Tufts will face off against Wartburg College out of Iowa on Saturday at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio.
In one of its toughest tests of the season, Tufts showed up strong on Saturday night against Scranton and took it to the Scranton Royals in the first half. The host Scranton, which was 30-0 headed into the contest, had the benefit of a home crowd and no travel, but Tufts seemed to be the more prepared team of the two in the game’s first 20 minutes.
Sophomore Melissa Baptista, who has been one of the Jumbos’ most consistent performers over this second half of the season, kicked things off in a way that was ultimately indicative of how she would impact the entire game. A layup followed by a three-pointer on the Jumbos’ first two possessions gave the visiting team a 5-0 lead right off the bat. Though Scranton answered with five points of its own, buckets by junior Michela North, Roberson and Baptista over the rest of the quarter, along with tight defense, pushed Tufts to a 10-0 run and a 15-5 lead by the end of the first quarter.
Even early on, Tufts’ roster showed its ability to knock down the important shots when they’re open. Along with a tough, constricting defense, it was the Jumbos’ ability to convert on open opportunities that ultimately sealed the win.
“I think when you’re playing good teams like Scranton in big NCAA games, you need to make those shots,” Roberson said. “I know that’s what Scranton did to come back. They hit a couple of big 3s on their end to tie it up. I think games like this when two teams are playing in a close game, you just need to step up and hit big shots. And Melissa obviously did that, [junior tri-captain] Josie [Lee], too, had a huge three. [Sophomore] Lauren [Dillon] took it to the basket, had a big basket for us, so just making plays at important times really helped us.”
Tufts controlled the rest of the first half, leading by as many as 16 off the offensive production of Lee, Roberson and North. Scranton was able to stick around, thanks to buckets down low from junior tri-captain Sarah Payonk, but by intermission Tufts still had a commanding 30-17 lead. The Royals, however, were far from finished.
Scranton returned in the second half with a steadfast chipping away at Tufts’ lead. Payonk, along with first-year guard Bridgette Mann and junior forward Alexix Roman, led a 12-3 run in third quarter that closed Tufts’ lead to just three points with two minutes to play before the fourth quarter. The comeback was momentarily halted as Tufts scored the final five points of the third period to retake an eight-point lead on yet another Baptista three-pointer.
The Royals crawled back yet again in the final period of regulation, as Roman hit a layup at the 6:53 mark to knot the game at 45. Tufts, knowing Scranton was capable of making this type of run, had to keep composure to fight through Scranton’s momentum and retake control.
“Scranton came out with a lot of energy in the third quarter,” North said. “They were not done yet. They wanted to get right back into the game, and they got rid of our 13-point lead by the fourth quarter. We kind of just kept huddling during the game, and during our huddles with coach, too, we talked about staying composed and being levelheaded, falling back on our defense like we always do and making sure we get a stop every time, and then push it and get a score. Not panicking — that gym was really loud, there were so many Scranton fans there. It was hard to hear anyone really talking on the court. We had to really bring it together to play through it.”
After coach Carla Berube called a timeout with just under seven minutes to play, the Jumbos found their stride once again and went on a 12-3 run to close out the game with a nine-point victory. Lee hit a big shot from beyond the arc to push the lead to five, and then Baptista ended the game with seven consecutive points of her own. She led all scorers with 23 points and also added four rebounds and two blocks. North had a double-double of 14 rebounds and 13 points, while Roberson tacked on 10 points and seven rebounds.
Roman led the way for Scranton with a double-double of 13 points and 13 rebounds.
In the game from Friday night’s Sweet 16, Tufts overcame some foul trouble and defeated Albright College 62-49. It took Tufts a little longer to get going in this contest, as both teams started with low offensive production. Albright led 7-6 after one quarter of play. By halftime, the Jumbos were up by just one point, leading 25-24.
It was not until the end of the third quarter that Tufts was able to finally break out and take a definitive lead. With just over two minutes to play before the fourth quarter, the Jumbos went on an 8-0 run for a seven-point lead. Though the Lions were able to shrink the Jumbos’ lead to as few as five in the fourth quarter, the Jumbos continued to match any offensive production, eventually taking the 13-point win.
North was dominant in the post for Tufts pouring in 17 points and grabbing 19 rebounds. Dillon had 11 points on the game, and senior Maura Folliard had a huge game off the bench for the Jumbos. She scored 11 points on 5-of-8 shooting from the floor and also grabbed two rebounds.
Though the Jumbos had to do it on the road rather than at home, they have proven they can take on the challenges of tough competition no matter where games may be played.
“It’s definitely different not having that home court advantage and not having as many fans,” North said. “But, I mean, our men’s team was doing a great job [at home], pulling out some great wins. I think we play just as well on the road this year, too. We had a big win at Amherst, breaking their streak, so we knew we could play on the road. I mean, a basketball court is a basketball court, and we just need to play our game. And rallying through it, despite all the cheers against us, it was actually kind of fun, kind of taking it away from the home court crowd and showing them that we could be road warriors too.”
The Jumbos now return to a remarkable third consecutive NCAA tournament Final Four, a testament to how much work the team, assistant coaches and head coach have put in to make the Tufts program so focused and successful.
“I think it really speaks to coach Berube as a coach and how talented she is and also the players she’s bringing in and the assistant coaches that she has next to her,” Roberson said. “I have nothing but good things to say about her. We’re obviously a defensive-minded team, so we are always focusing on defense, and I think she’s very motivating and really gets the best out of all of her players, and it shows in how well the program has done over the past few years.”
This year’s NCAA Final Four features a chance for drama. Tufts (27-3) is set to take on little-known Wartburg College (23-7) this Saturday at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio and looks to end the small Iowa school’s Cinderella-story run on the national stage. In the other semifinal matchup, defending national champion and national No. 1 seed Thomas More (31-0) takes on an impressive-looking Amherst team (30-1). Should Amherst upset the defending champions, and should Tufts prevail against a previously unranked but dangerous Wartburg squad — which boasts a skilled 6 ft. 2 in. center in senior Kailey Kladivo who can neutralize North’s size advantage — Tufts will earn a chance to avenge its NESCAC Championships loss.
This year also marks the 35th anniversary of the NCAA women’s basketball championships, which will be marked with a special tournament format. The winners of this Saturday’s Div. III Final Four games will face off on Monday, April 4 in Indianapolis at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the same venue where the Div. I and Div. II national championship games will be played within the same 48-hour time period. That means that, should the Jumbos win this Saturday’s matchup, they would have the chance to fight for their first ever NCAA title on the most prominent of stages.
The tip off for Saturday’s Tufts-Wartburg game is at 5 p.m. and will be streamed live — look for the link on the women’s basketball page of gotuftsjumbos.com.