After trailing No. 1 Tufts for most of the game, No. 2 Amherst edged out the hosts 36-35 in the final 1:18, despite being held to just 25.6 percent shooting. With the loss, Tufts moves to 21-1 on the season and 8-1 in the NESCAC, while Amherst remains undefeated at 22-0 and 8-0 in the conference.
Amherst, the offensive powerhouse averaging 73.1 points per game, was held to under 40 points for the first time this season as the visitors were limited to 10-of-39 shooting from the field. Senior guard Ali Doswell of Amherst was the game’s top scorer with 17 points, scoring just two points fewer than the rest of her team together.
Tufts coach Carla Berube said she was pleased with the team’s defensive performance.
“Defensively, I think we did an awesome job matching up and just sticking to our game plan,” Berube said. “We kept a team that averages close to 80 points a game to under 40.”
Tuft started off strong in the first quarter, fueled by junior forward Melissa Baptista’s seven points and first-year goal/forward Erica DeCandido’s four points, racing ahead to an 18-8 lead in the first 10 minutes of play. As a team, the Jumbos held their opponents to just 2-of-8 from the field while shooting 7-of-10 on the other end.
The second quarter, however, was a different story. The Jumbos made just one field goal in 10 minutes of play: a layup by senior tri-captain forward Michela North at 5:04 in the quarter. Doswell continued her prowess on the offensive end, finishing the half with 14 of her team’s 18 points to pull within three points of the Jumbos, 18-21, going into the half.
Baptista emphasized the need for members of the team to take an initiative when it comes to scoring.
“Sometimes our team gets into the mentality that someone else is … going to score and I think that we all need to realize that all five of us on [the] court can score the basketball,” Baptista said. “Instead of waiting for someone to do something, any of us can drive in there and create offense. We just need to instill that confidence in each other.”
Berube frequently tried to create new scoring opportunities for her team from the sidelines, but acknowledged the frustration she felt by her team’s limited offensive output in the second quarter.
“We were getting some good shots, but we just couldn’t put the ball in the basket,” Berube said. “Even just the last play before the half, where Michela [North] had a wide-open shot and then Melissa [Baptista] got the rebound. She had a wide-open putback and missed that. You just got to move forward.”
Despite allowing the first basket of the second half, the hosts extended their one point lead quickly, scoring the next three baskets to find themselves eight points ahead just over the halfway mark of the quarter.
Yet a foul by Baptista, her third of the game, set up two free throws for junior Hannah Hackley and sent Baptista to the bench. Hackley made both free throws, which ignited a six-point run behind junior forward Jackie Nagle’s play. Nagle made two straight blocks and made an open layup to make it a one possession game 26-28, with 1:22 left in the game.
Seconds later, junior guard Lauren Dillon silenced the crowd with an acrobatic shot to halt the Jumbos’ drought and cling to a four-point lead heading into the final quarter.
Baptista, who was the top scorer in the game for the Jumbos with 12 points, saw her playing time limited due to fouls, eventually fouling out in the fourth quarter with 3:26 left in the game.
“Melissa got called for a few fouls that could have gone either way,” Berube said. “She’s an integral part of our team, so to have her on the bench a lot in the second half was tough, but she’s been awesome this year, growing from game to game and learning from each one.”
Baptista, who used to foul out a lot more frequently in her first two seasons, has been making a concerted effort to be more disciplined on the court this season.
“The first two seasons, I struggled with foul trouble and I’ve held out in very important games in the past, but this year I tried to focus on my defense and not get into foul trouble so I can play as many minutes as I can and help my team,” Baptista said.
Amherst’s first-year guard Madeline Eck kicked off scoring in the final quarter, connecting on one of two free throws to make it a single possession game, 27-30 with 7:36 on the clock. Meanwhile, Baptista picked up her fourth foul, but made a jump shot on the next play, to make it a five-point game, 32-27, with 7:23 left in the game.
Baptista’s shot would be the Jumbos’ final field goal in the game. Senior tri-captain guard Josie Lee was the only consistent presence from the free throw line of the day, connecting on 3-of-4 within the last five minutes. The rest of the team shot just 4-of-10 from the free throw line.
“Foul shots [have] always been our Achilles heel, but I think if we had just made two or three, they really would have mattered towards the end,” Baptista said. “That’s something that we’ve always struggled with. Having a high free-throw percentage, I think that comes to mentality and being mentally focused despite the distractions. These are two free shots that you can take that will help your team and [so we should] just be focused and be more mentally strong.”
A foul by DeCandido led to another two free throw opportunities, and Amherst’s senior co-captain Meredith Doswell went 1-of-2 to close the gap to four with just over seven minutes to play. Behind a foul from Baptista and two more from sophomore guard Jacqueline Knapp, Amherst went 3-of-6 from the free throw line to pull within two points, 33-35, with 1:58 to play.
With less than two minutes to play, Hackley converted on a game-changing 3-point play off a steal from senior guard Jaimie Renner to give Amherst their first lead of the game, 36-35, with 1:18 left on the clock.
The Jumbos found themselves in an unfamiliar position, playing catchup in the final minutes of the game. North took a shot with 59 seconds left of the clock and missed, but Tufts recovered the jump ball from Amherst to give them another shot at the basket. After the timeout, Tufts tried to create opportunities and set up a shot, but the Amherst defense snuffed any attempts, with Renner stealing the ball from Dillon in the closing seconds of play to end the game 36-35 Amherst.
“Offensively, it was difficult,” Berube said. “They’re a very good team defensively and we had a difficult time putting the ball in the basket. Other times, they really took us out of what we wanted to do. They really pack the paint up well, defended our drives well, defended Michela [North] well, and it was a great battle for sure.”
With just two games left in the regular season, Tufts will take nearly a full week off in preparation for an away game against Williams on Friday.