Tufts will find itself in the Final Four again this upcoming weekend for the fourth consecutive year, after defeating Washington University (WashU) in St. Louis 57-43 on Saturday. The Jumbos traveled to St. Louis, Mo. on Friday, defeating Scranton 65-48 to set up a match-up against WashU.
Senior tri-captain and Tufts all-time leading scorer Michela North finished with 20 points of 9-of-12 shooting and added 15 rebounds to propel her team into the Final Four, which will be her fourth appearance in as many years.
“It was good to have a great game yesterday in such a big game with so much pressure attached to it,” North said. “Being my senior year, I definitely push myself even more, [because] every game could be my last game, along with Josie [Lee’s] and Katy [Hicks’]. Seeing seniors on other teams lose and seeing their reactions after the after the game, I know I don’t want to feel that at all.”
Both teams started the night strong, with Tufts narrowly ahead of WashU, 14-12, after the first quarter. Tufts and WashU each found itself in a shooting slump in the second, scoring just five and six points, respectively, before the half. The Jumbos shot just 2-of-13 from the field in the second, with North and junior point guard Lauren Dillon scoring the only two field goals of the quarter to carry a slim 19-18 lead into the half.
“We went into the [WashU] game confident, knowing that we have the ability to shoot well in that gym, [and] we were ready to go but our [shots] weren’t falling,” North said. “Maybe it was the pressure from [our opponents] or our shooters, but we knew we had other options to go to.”
Tufts recovered quickly after the half, scoring 22 points in the third while holding WashU to just 12. North scored nine points on a perfect 4-of-4 from the field, and junior forward Melissa Baptista added six points of her own, finishing with 14 points on the night. Baptista scored the first three-pointer of the night for the Jumbos and finished with two of her team’s three three-pointers in the game.
“I think we came out really strong in the second half,” sophomore guard Jacqueline Knapp said. “That was one of the best third quarters that we’ve had all season. We really came out on defense, and we had [WashU] pushing back on their heels. I think just playing in the NESCAC, where we do play back-to-back, we were in better shape and we were able to outlast them.”
Despite attempts by the Bears in the fouth to cut into the Jumbos’ lead, the Jumbos remained relentless on defense and calm under pressure on the offensive end. WashU came as close as 12 points in the final quarter off a free throw by senior Jenn Dynis, but with less than two minutes in the game, Tufts closed out the victory 57-43.
“I think the difference between [WashU] and [Scranton the day before] was just the level of play,” Knapp said. “I think [WashU] had a lot of people who could score. They are very physical, very tough and just a very good program.”
The day before, Knapp recorded a career-high 20 points against Scranton, finishing the night with 20 points off 7-of-10 shooting, 5-of-8 from beyond the arc and six rebounds in just her second appearance at the NCAAs.
“Jacqueline [Knapp] has been doing a really great job, hitting a lot of big shots,” North said. “A lot of teams try to pack it inside to deter our team from passing it inside to me and Melissa [Baptista] in the post, and so Jacqueline [Knapp] has been hitting the open shot, which definitely helps our team moving forward. I remember at the beginning she wouldn’t shoot as much, [but] she’s definitely more consistent now. We’re all confident in her shooting the ball, and I think she’s found that [confidence] within herself.”
The Jumbos shot 45.5 percent from the field and 44 percent from the three-point range. Besides Knapp’s five three-pointers, team-leading scorer Baptista added three three-pointers of her own, scoring 13 points on the night. Led by junior tri-captain point guard Lauren Dillon’s five steals, the Jumbos forced 17 turnovers, scoring 21 points off turnovers to the Royal’s seven.
“I think we look to Lauren Dillon for guidance because she runs the team, she runs our offense … and she has done a great job all year setting the intensity on defense,” Knapp said.
Tufts had defeated Scranton in the sectional round last year, 57-48.
“I guess going into the Scranton game, having played them last year, we knew they were going to be a tough team that could go on some runs, had physical players that were going to make it hard for us inside,” North said. “We knew if we just went into it with confidence, played great defense and got great stops, we’d come out on top. So we just went at it possession by possession, just focusing on every play.”
Tufts will play No. 2/3 St. Thomas (Minn.) in Final Four action on Friday at the Van Noord Arena in Grand Rapids, Mich. at 5 p.m. while No. 1 seed Amherst will square off against Christopher Newport during the other semifinal matchup.
“I think we’re very hungry for a title. For our seniors, this is their fourth trip back to the final four,” Knapp said. “Last year we were able to make it to the championship, but I think everyone wants to win the title for our seniors [because] they’ve done so much for the program. Obviously we’re playing for the program at Tufts, playing for ourselves, playing for each other, but I think our main goal is to play for our seniors to get them the title that they deserve.”