For the third time this season, Tufts found itself matched up against a familiar conference foe – Amherst – this time with the national championship on the line. Despite an offensive spurt to kick off the second half, Tufts was unable to recover from a sluggish start and fell 52-29 to Amherst on March 18.
“It’s hard to play well all tournament long and not play well in the championship game,” coach Carla Berube said. “You have to make shots against a defensive team like Amherst, but the game didn’t go so well.”
The defensive tone of the game was set in the opening minutes, with both teams unable to connect on their first four attempts at the basket. Amherst senior co-captain guard Ali Doswell kicked off scoring four minutes into play with a lay-up off a steal by senior point guard Jaimie Renner. Ali Doswell scored another two points to take her team total to seven in response to a lay-up from Tufts first-year forward Erica DeCandido. DeCandido’s basket would be the only points for the Jumbos in the first quarter.
“I saw the scoreboard and it was definitely weird seeing two points on the board up there for a long time,” senior tri-captain Michela North said. “They just executed better than us and got more stops.”
With Amherst carrying a narrow 7-2 lead into the second quarter, Tufts junior guard Jennie Mucciarone entered the game, taking two attempts from beyond the arc in the first minute of the quarter but failing to connect both times. The Jumbos were unable to execute offensively in the second quarter and saw their opponent’s five-point lead extend to 20-6 as Amherst outscored Tufts 13-4 in the second.
“We just couldn’t make a basket, [and] when you score six points in the first half, that doesn’t bode well for winning a game, but I didn’t let it get to me,” North said. “At halftime, we were down by 14, [but] we had come back from a 12-point deficit with five minutes left [against St. Thomas] so we knew comebacks were possible. We did have hope going into halftime, and we knew it was going to be a low-scoring game, just not that low.”
After sitting briefly in the second quarter, North re-entered the game to score the team’s only baskets of the quarter. The Jumbos finished a season-low 15.8 percent from the field in the first half, connecting on just 3-of-19.
The Jumbos’ leading scorer, junior forward Melissa Baptista, recovered from 0-of-7 shooting in the first half to score her team’s first three-pointer of the day, narrowing the gap to 9-20. Two more quick jump shots by sophomore guard Jacqueline Knapp and North narrowed the gap even further as the Jumbos pulled within seven points of their opponents, 13-20.
North responded with another jump shot minutes later, responding to two free throws made by Amherst sophomore guard/forward Emma McCarthy, but that seven-point margin would be the closest Tufts got to its opponents for the rest of the game.
“It’s hard not having a break from one really intense emotional game to bring it all into the next day,” Berube said. “Maybe we just didn’t have as much gas in the tank as we needed.”
McCarthy made another pair of free throws followed by a lay-up to regain her team’s double digit lead, 26-15, with just under five minutes left in the third. Amherst senior co-captain forward Meredith Doswell scored her second three-pointer of the game to extend her team’s lead to 13 at 32-19, but Baptista converted on a pair of free throws to narrow the lead to 11, 32-21, headed to the final quarter.
Baptista kicked off the fourth quarter with a block on Amherst junior Hannah Hackley but turned the ball over on the following possession. Following a missed jump shot by Ali Doswell, Baptista took two more shots from behind the arc in an attempt to narrow the gap but failed to connect.
Amherst continued to extend their lead in the final quarter, holding Tufts scoreless until 5:39 left in the game, when DeCandido made a jump shot to cut the point-deficit to 15, 23-38. With less than five minutes left in the championship, the Jumbos put Ali Doswell on the line three more times, with Doswell converting on all six free throws and making it clear that the game was all but over. Amherst seized the 52-29 win, with Ali Doswell finishing the night with 21 points and Most Valuable Player honors.
North, Tufts’ all-time leading scorer and rebounder, garnered her 15th career double-double in the national tournament with a team-high 14 points and 10 rebounds, going 6-for-11 from the floor.
“Amherst is a great team, beating us three times, and for those to be our only three losses, I’m okay with it because I know what a great team they are,” North said. “NESCAC basketball is, in my opinion, one of the strongest leagues in the country, [and] I think even more NESCAC teams could have made the championship to begin with.”
The underwhelming finish to the national championship game was drastically different from the night before, when Tufts recovered from a 12-point deficit with just 5:30 left in the game against St. Thomas.
Tufts carried a five-point lead, 30-25, heading into the second half, but balanced scoring by St. Thomas tied the score at 37 apiece with 4:10 left in the third. After St. Thomas sophomore center Hannah Spaulding scored two free throws and sophomore guard Lucia Renikoff’s jump shot put their team ahead 41-37, Baptista responded with a three-pointer to pull Tufts back within one, 41-40.
“St. Thomas is a great team and they have an amazing post player in senior center Kaitlin Langer. We kept her quiet to start off the game, and she was out with foul trouble, but at the beginning of the third quarter she started going off. I think she scored like 10 points in a row, and personally I was having trouble stopping her,” North said.
In the closing seconds of the third quarter, Langer connected on two free throws and continued that momentum into the final quarter, with back-to-back lay-ups putting her team up 47-40. Baptista’s made free throw interrupted Langer’s monopoly on scoring, but Langer scored two more lay-ups to put her team up 10, 51-41, with 6:21 left in the game. Senior Tommies guard Gabby Zehrer made a lay-up to take the game to 53-41, and the Jumbos found themselves down 12 with five and a half minutes to play.
DeCandido immediately responded with a three-point play to cut the lead to nine, and a free throw by Baptista further cut the lead to eight with 4:26 left in the game.
With less than three minutes left in the game, junior tri-captain point guard Lauren Dillon made a shot from beyond the arc to make it a two-possession game. North immediately followed up with two clutch free throws to pull within three, but a North foul gave Langer the opportunity to complete a three-point play. Langer’s lay-up, her seventh of the night, extended the lead to five with 1:38 to play.
Langer missed the extra point, and the rebound was picked up by North, who passed it to Baptista. Baptista then converted it to three points on the other end, pulling within two with 1:24 left to play. Baptista followed up her offense with a steal on the inbound and another two points to tie the game at 55 apiece. Baptista missed the free throw, but Knapp stole the ball and converted once more from the outside to take a 58-55 lead with 32 seconds left in the game.
“Erica [DeCandido] found [Dillon] and [Dillon] made that pass to [sophomore guard] Jacqueline Knapp in the corner to make that three,” Berube said. “[Kaitlin] Langer was flying at her, all 6’3” of her, but [Knapp] got the shot off and shot it with confidence and that was the dagger. It was one of the best comebacks I had ever been a part of.”
Renikoff made a jump shot to pull within one, 57-58, with 11 seconds remaining, and St. Thomas began to foul Tufts. Sophomore guard Kaylie Brazil fouled Dillon, who made one free throw and then grabbed an offensive rebound off her own missed free throw, forcing St. Thomas to foul her again. Dillon made one of two free throws again, taking the score to 60-57, the eventual score.
“We just looked at each other after the huddle, [senior co-captain guard] Josie [Lee] looked at me, and I think we knew that we weren’t going to lose that game,” North said. “We are a very resilient team and we are a team that battles to the end. We stuck with it and focused on our defense and just slowly cut the lead down.”