On Wednesday, the Jumbos (29-2) flew out to Grand Rapids, Mich. as they prepare to make their fourth consecutive Final Four appearance on Friday.
“It’s pretty crazy to think about, coming in as a freshman, the team had never made the Final Four, the farthest they’[d] gone was the Sweet Sixteen,” senior tri-captain center Michela North said. “I knew the team had success in the past and had potential to go further, but going to four straight Final Fours, I never even thought that was possible … For it to keep happening each year, it’s just testament to how hard we work in practice and in the off-season, how much we push each other to get better to reach that point each year.”
This will be the final weekend playing for the senior class of North, tri-captain guard Josie Lee and forward Katy Hicks. And in what would be the last ever road trip for the trio, North is grateful for her fellow classmates. Tufts was the only school in the nation with two All-Americans selections, as North and junior forward Melissa Baptista earned the honors.
“Josie, Katy and I are all very good friends … and that’s definitely helped us on the court with our chemistry,” North said. “Katy and I battle each other every day in practice, and it gets pretty heated on the court, but once practice is over we know we’re good friends and just part of the game. Josie and I, we’ve built up that chemistry, she knows where I’d be on the court, we just have a great connection, we’ve worked really well together on the court.”
For junior tri-captain guard Lauren Dillon, the team’s experience from previous years of going deep into the national tournament is an asset.
“For a lot of us, this isn’t our first rodeo, and having the past three years of experience helps us to not get distracted and see past all the frills and the excitement of this weekend to focus on what we are actually here to do: winning the national championship,” Dillon told the Daily in an email. “We’ve played on the big stage and have felt the eyes and the pressure that comes with it. Knowing what our past experiences have felt like will hopefully give us the edge and confidence to compete at the level we know we can this weekend.”
To get to this stage, Tufts saw off the challenge of the Scranton Lady Royals (26-4) and the Washington University in St. Louis (WashU) Bears (26-3) last weekend, winning both games by at least 14 points. In the 65-48 victory over Scranton in the Sweet Sixteen, sophomore guard Jacqueline Knapp led the way with a season-high 20 points, while North and Baptista picked up 11 and 13 points, respectively. North then dominated in the 57-43 victory over WashU with a game-high 20 points and 15 rebounds, as Baptista and Knapp added 14 and 10 points, respectively. The team was also led along the way by some impressive play-making from Dillon, who now holds the program record with 373 assists.
Standing in the team’s way of a return to the National Championship game is the St. Thomas Tommies, who are currently unbeaten after 31 games this season. St. Thomas comes into this as the Minnesota Inner Athletic Conference (MIAC) Champions, having defeated the Gustavus Adolphus Golden Gusties (25-3) 66-49 in the final. Tufts has to be wary of St. Thomas’ senior center Kaitlin Langer, who leads the team and conference with 19.3 points per game.
“We know that they have a big six-[foot]-three player, she’s an All-American, she’s player of the year, defensive player of the year for their conference,” North said. “We know she can score, we know she’s good at defense and blocking shots. I think shutting her down, limiting her touches and how many shots she takes is definitely going to be key to the game … we know that we’re a great defensive team.”
Tufts will also have to be strong on perimeter defense. St. Thomas’ junior guard Lauren Fischer and sophomore guard Lucia Renikoff are among the leaders in terms of 3-point percentage in the MIAC with 42.0 and 40.8 percent respectively.
“They shoot like 35 percent from the three, so they have a lot of guards who can knock down big shots,” North said. “Playing great perimeter defense is another big thing, just like any other game we want to focus on our defense first before transitioning to offense.”
St. Thomas’ route to the Final Four saw them host all four games, beating the University of Wisconsin-Superior Yellowjackets (23-5) 98-56, the University of Chicago Maroons (19-8) 73-69 and Marymount University Saints (24-6) 62-55.
In the Elite Eight, St. Thomas saw off the Whitman College Missionaries (26-5) 65-48. Langer finished with 18 points and 19 rebounds, while Renikoff finished with 14 points. Langer’s most important contribution was her 14 defensive rebounds that limited Whitman’s ability to get any offense going.
In the other Final Four match-up, NESCAC champions Amherst (31-0) face the Christopher Newport University Captains (29-2). Amherst, as the top ranked team in the nation, defeated Tufts 41-37 in the NESCAC Championship. Meanwhile in the Capital Athletic Conference Tournament, the Captains saw off the University of Mary Washington Eagles (24-5), 74-58. The Captains defeated No. 5 Ohio Northern University Polar Bears (30-1) 76-66 in the Elite Eight, and No. 18 Hope College Flying Dutchmen (24-5) 79-74 in the Sweet Sixteen.
Dillon is confident of the team’s prospects this weekend.
“We’ve talked about our season as being a climb, getting better each and every day and never looking too far ahead,” Dillon told the Daily in an email. “Now that there is nowhere else to look, we know that the time is now for us to finally peak, it’s our big reveal.”
The Jumbos tip-off at 5 p.m. tonight in Grand Rapids. With a win tonight the Jumbos are one step away from claiming a national title. The championship game will be played Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Watch the game live online.