Tufts finished its final road trip of this semester with three strong wins that put the team at 7–0 and on track toward its goal of a National Championship.
On Wednesday night, Tufts overcame a stingy WPI defense that had previously only let up fewer than 35 points on average, and ended the game 63–50. WPI senior guard Stasha Greenalch made a jump-shot after 16 seconds, but it was the only moment that Tufts trailed in the entire game. Making a powerful statement to start the game, the Jumbos let up only six more points in the quarter as they raced to a 17–8 first-quarter lead.
Against a difficult defensive team, coach Carla Berube thought her team performed well overall.
“I wasn’t surprised that they played us in player-to-player defense — that’s always been WPI’s bread and butter,” Berube said. “Their three-quarter court press — it was fine, they were just trying to slow us down take some time off the shot clock and I thought we did a fine job breaking it and getting in to what we want to do offensively.”
Sophomore guard Cailin Harrington came off the bench to contribute with her only score of the game to bring Tufts’ lead to its highest in the game (18) with 0:55 to play in the first half. First-year guard/forward Emily Briggs continued the fine start to her Tufts career with 10 points off the bench, playing 23 minutes, as Tufts went into the break with a 35–21 lead. Despite Tufts’ one-point loss in the second half, the team’s typical fast-paced first-quarter start led it to a seventh straight win to start the season.
Part of Tufts’ success came from being able to keep WPI’s most prolific scorer, senior guard Ama Biney, relatively quiet, limiting her to just six points. Prior to this match, Biney was averaging 13.3 points per game. Sophomore guard/forward Erica DeCandido was impressive on both fronts, leading the team with seven defensive rebounds and contributing offensively with 15 points, while senior forward Melissa Baptista scored a game-high 17.
“For the most part of the game, we disrupted her offensively and tried to limit her touches and for the most part last night’s game went really well,” Berube said. “We let up a little bit in the fourth quarter defensively, so hopefully we can learn a few lessons from that game and have a strong finish here for the first semester.”
On Saturday, Baptista became the 14th player in the program’s history to score at least 1000 points. The historic moment came just after 3:30 played in the second quarter, as her lay-up brought her up to 10 points in the game and into the 1000-point club. She would go on to make another basket later in the game, as her 12 points and five rebounds contributed to the Jumbos’ 64–44 victory over the Bridgewater State Bears.
For a fourth game in a row, DeCandido led the team with the most points (14). In truth, this was a game the Jumbos dominated almost from start to finish. After Baptista made her lay-up with 5:51 to play in the first, the Jumbos never trailed again.
Senior guard and co-captain Lauren Dillon spoke on the importance of DeCandido’s break-out year.
“Traditionally in the past four years, we had two 6-foot-3-inch centers in Hayley Kanner and Michela North who’ve been incredible and our go-to scorers,” Dillon said. “We get the ball inside and we think we’re all set. But Melissa’s never truly played in that five position and we can’t just depend our post scoring everything. Having Erica as a second option and a lot of times our first option has been really great.”
Tufts upped the pressure in the second quarter, outscoring its opponent 22–10. DeCandido got the Jumbos going with a jump shot 28 seconds into the quarter, while junior guard Jac Knapp ended the quarter with a 3-point buzzer-beater. The Jumbos were also helped along by their impressive defense, scoring 34 points off the Bears’ 30 turnovers throughout both halves.
Despite a tighter second half, the No. 1 team in the nation was able to score consistently and moved the ball well enough to fend off its challengers, edging it 24–21 to maintain its lead. Throughout the game, Tufts shot a season-high 50.9 percent (28-of-55) and had picked up 18 assists along the way compared to Bridgewater’s 37.2 (16-of-43) and four respectively.
On Friday, Tufts started off its participation in the tournament with a 63–51 victory over Rochester. Rochester is the highest-ranking opponent Tufts has had to face this year, and it reflected in the score — this was Tufts’ smallest winning margin of the season so far. Thankfully for the Jumbos, they were led to victory by a powerful first quarter, with a 14–0 drive in a four-minute spurt midway through the quarter largely thanks to Baptista. At 6–7 down, Baptista made her jump shot with 4:57 to play in the first to give the Jumbos a lead they never relinquished.
Rochester tried to claw back in each subsequent quarter, but Tufts scored sufficient points to maintain its lead. After Dillon and DeCandido scored early in the second quarter to give Tufts a 29–9 lead, Rochester went on a 13–2 scoring run late in the first half to close the gap to 11.
The tight-scoring game continued in the second half. On multiple occasions, senior forward Alexandra Leslie proved why she was deemed the biggest threat to Tufts. Her 3-point shot with 6:57 left in the third quarter, and two free throws later in the quarter, brought Rochester to within eight points of Tufts. Leslie finished with game-high 19 points and 12 rebounds.
“Leslie is a First Team All-American for a reason,” Berube said. “She’s really got a great game, great arsenal of offensive moves, but I thought our team as a whole did a really good job overall limiting her touches and putting the pressure on her when she did get the ball. Other than the two threes that she hit — she doesn’t usually shoot threes but she hit two against us — I thought we did a great job with her inside. We didn’t want anyone else on their team to hurt us, we played what I thought was just a great overall team effort especially on the defensive end and fueled some really good offense, so that was a big win … early in the season. Rochester has a really great program so I’m definitely proud of that effort.”
For Baptista, it was a new test in her transition to the five position, but the overall effort of the team in guarding against Leslie proved to be crucial in Tufts’ defensive game plan against the No. 9 team in the country.
“That was definitely one of the more competitive games for me, especially being new to the five,” Baptista said. “I haven’t been up against a 6’2” All-American, really strong, great at their post moves player, so it was a challenge for me, but I think we really focused on strategies on how to limit her touches and overall defense, pounding and doubling, allowed her to give up points and turnovers. We did pretty well overall, we ended up winning the game, because of team defense being there for help.”
Yet, it was Tufts’ ability to spread the scoring that drove them to victory eventually. Three players finished with more than 10 points — DeCandido (18), Baptista (13) and Dillon (11) — while contributions off the bench from Harrington (two), Briggs and junior forward Katie Martensen (both six), compared to Rochester’s just 10, kept the momentum going for Tufts.
Overall at the Williams’ tournament, the team’s fast start was crucial to its success.
“I think both Bridgewater and Rochester are very competitive teams,” Baptista said. “So setting off on a good tone, especially the starting five — knowing this is how we’re going to play our offense and defense, with high energy — can transcend throughout the game.”
Nevertheless, Dillon believes the team still has work to do.
“I don’t think we can confidently say we’ve put together a whole 40 minutes of our best basketball, and it’s hard to do in the beginning of the season, but we’re working towards that,” Dillon said. “I think the first and fourth quarters were where we really shined — our starters did a great job setting the tone right in the beginning, having that cushion at the beginning helped us outlast them in the end when they came crawling back.”
Tufts hosts the University of New England on Saturday and Emmanuel on Monday to close out the semester.