No. 1 Tufts remains unbeaten

Junior guard Lauren Dillon shoots at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on the day of the NCAA Div. I championship on April 4, 2016. (Evan Sayles / The Tufts Daily)

Tufts continued its dominance as the No. 1 team in the nation, racking up seven victories so far in 2017 to maintain its 16-game unbeaten start to the season.

“[Our winning streak] is something that we take pride in,” junior tri-captain point guard Lauren Dillon said. “It’s obviously awesome to say that we’re 16-0, but it’s really been about winning the next game. We might have a huge game [over] the weekend, but if we have a midweek game, we’re focused on that, and we’re not even thinking about the other games. That mentality [is the reason] for our success, by taking one game at a time, not taking anyone too lightly.”

In the team’s latest victory, the Jumbos took down the Babson Beavers 60-46 on the road on Tuesday night. Though they gave up the first points of the game on a pair of successful free throws from senior Beaver forward Jennifer Narlee, the Jumbos never trailed again in the game. Tufts was strong on defense, forcing 30 turnovers and scoring 31 points off the takeaways. Two Jumbos also tallied season-highs on the night as junior forward Melissa Baptista scored 23 points while senior forward Katy Hicks scored 10 points off the bench. The Jumbo offense really got going in the fourth quarter, going on a 14-3 streak from the start of the quarter to record a 23-point lead, the team’s largest of the game.

“Everyone is getting better as a player personally, as well as the team,” Dillon said. “Just to see Hicks coming off the bench and putting up great numbers is just awesome … it’s why we’d win those tough games because we have bench players who are able to come out and just play like the people that start.”

Senior tri-captain guard Josie Lee believes this is also evidence of improving team chemistry.

“Of course individual accomplishments are amazing, I’m super proud of Melissa and Katy, but ultimately what led to those accomplishments is our defense last night,” Lee said. “It was really a team effort, we were able to solidify that effort and show it through our increased offense.”

The team also played its first four NESCAC opponents of the season this month — Bowdoin and Colby at home and Middlebury and Hamilton on the road — and won all four match-ups to stay atop the conference. Tufts recorded a 70-42 victory at Hamilton this past Saturday and won 54-38 at Middlebury the day before. In the comfortable win over Hamilton, Baptista recorded her then-season high of 18 points to lead the team to victory, while sophomore guard Jacqueline Knapp finished with a game-high six assists. The highlight of the game was undoubtedly first-year guard Sadie Otley’s career-high 16 points, as she went 6-for-8 from the field, including going 4-for-5 on 3-point shots.

At Middlebury, senior captain center Michela North led the team with 12 points, four rebounds and three blocks. The Jumbos shot 21-for-54 from the field, and scored seven three-pointers as they comfortably defeated the Panthers.

The closest the Jumbos’ unbeaten run came to ending was against then-No. 17 Bowdoin on Jan. 6 at Cousens Gym. Bowdoin started out aggressively, taking the early 17-11 lead after the first quarter. Neither team led by double digits at any stage in the game, as the teams traded almost point-for-point. With 2:53 to play in the fourth quarter, Dillon’s two free throws leveled the score at 42-42. Baptista then sank a three-pointer, her only one of the game, to give Tufts the lead which it held on until the end.

“We went into this game knowing it was going to be a big game, our first true test which can shake people, a little bit of nerves -and I think we saw that a lot in the first half of the game,” Dillon said. “In the second half we kind of got more comfortable, knew what we were doing and that’s when we started to pull away. And that just relied on the experience of the veterans on the team as well as the underclassmen shaking off their nerves and being able to step up and just get things done.”

Lee said that the team showed tremendous grit to come through with a victory against Bowdoin.

“I think ultimately, we were able to focus on our defense and I think that’s what helped us win the game even though our offense may not have been there completely,” Lee said. “It showed that we can still compete with some of the best teams in the league regardless of whether we lost some talent last year, which is really comforting.”

Tufts also won its final three games in December to close out the semester on a high. These included a 51-36 victory at Bridgewater St., a 76-50 win at the University of New England and a comfortable 77-47 home victory over Emerson. In each of the games, the Jumbos scored at least 16 points off turnovers. The team was also able to showcase its depth in personnel, with the bench contributing at least 20 points in each game.

Tufts will conclude its seven-game road trip by first visiting Wesleyan on Friday night, and then playing at Conn. College on Saturday before finishing up at Emmanuel on Tuesday night.