Tufts falls to Amherst in national championship rematch, defeats Hamilton

Senior guard Lauren Dillon prepares to shoot a free-throw in the game against Babson on Jan. 29, 2018. (Allison Culbert / The Tufts Daily)

In a rematch of last year’s Div. III championship game, No. 9 Tufts (20–3) traveled to No. 1 Amherst (22–0) on Friday with hopes of avenging that loss and overthrowing the hosts as the top team in the NESCAC standings just weeks before the conference tournament. Despite a second half rally, the Jumbos fell to their Mammoth rivals, 50–43. Tufts resumed its winning ways the next day at Hamilton, never trailing en route to a 69–53 rout. Tufts is now 20–3 overall and 7–2 in NESCAC play with just one game remaining in the regular season.

With a night to reflect on the defeat at Amherst, Tufts came out firing against Hamilton on Saturday. First-year guard/forward Emily Briggs’s layup at the 8:20 mark of the first quarter was the first score, and Tufts never trailed for the remainder of the game.

Taking a slight 11–9 lead into the second quarter, the Jumbos applied defensive pressure, holding the Continentals to just seven points in the period. Just over a minute into the second quarter, senior forward Melissa Baptista rejected Hamilton junior guard/forward and co-captain Halie Serbent’s attempted layup and finished the play on the other end with a jump-shot. Briggs contributed eight points in as many minutes, while Tufts limited Hamilton to 3-of-16 shooting in the period to open up a 24–16 lead at halftime.

Tufts started fast after the break, as Baptista and the team’s co-captains — senior guard Lauren Dillon and senior guard Jennie Mucciarone — dropped in two unanswered layups and a three-pointer. With Tufts nearly doubling Hamilton’s score at 31–16, the game appeared all but decided early in the third period. However, Hamilton coach Michelle Collins called a 30-second timeout to revive her team.

Hamilton immediately scorched Tufts on a 15–3 run and cut the deficit to just three points at 34–31. The red-hot Continentals appeared ready to take their first lead before the Jumbos applied the brakes with three minutes to go in the third. A jump shot from junior forward Katie Martensen, followed by buckets from Dillon and Baptista, poured ice water all over Hamilton. Junior guard Jac Knapp closed the period with a jumper, and Tufts’ lead was once again intact at 44–32.

The teams traded blows in the fourth quarter, but Tufts again outscored Hamilton and finished on top, 69–53. Though the Jumbos came away with the win, Baptista felt there was room for improvement going forward.

“One of our goals is [keeping] teams down to 45 points, 42 points, which I think we’ve done in the past,” Baptista said. “Something that coach [Carla Berube] and … the Tufts program really reiterate is defense being the number-one priority.”

Briggs contributed a career-high 20 points to go with five rebounds and two steals. Dillon, the shortest player on the team, paced Tufts with nine rebounds and added 15 points, including a trio of treys. Baptista scored 17 points on 6-of-12 shooting with two blocks and three assists.

“[Briggs] always looks very calm, and I know that I admire that from a [first-year],” sophomore guard Cailin Harrington said. “I remember last year, at times, I definitely felt frantic or nervous. She definitely does a very good job of staying composed, and I think sometimes she gets into a little bit of foul trouble, but on Saturday she did a really good job of not letting that happen.”

Since the Jumbos claimed a NESCAC Championship in the 2014-15 season, they have fallen to the Mammoths twice in the NESCAC title game and once in the Div. III national championship. In the last two years, Amherst has been a national semifinalist and the national champion, while Tufts has twice been the runner-up. Even their mascots, an elephant and a woolly mammoth, seem small when these two behemoths of women’s basketball meet. It is with this history in mind that the two NESCAC powerhouses faced off on Friday, a few weeks before the NESCAC tournament.

“I think Amherst is always a game that we look forward to,” Harrington said. “We do a generally good job of just taking it game-by-game and not looking too far into the future, but I do think that Amherst is kind of a name that is always in the back of our heads. Especially this season, when we fell to Bowdoin and then when we saw that Bowdoin fell to Amherst, we were kind of like, ‘If we get this win, then we’re all up there.'”

Baptista started off the game with a layup, and Amherst sophomore guard Madeline Eck answered right back with a layup of her own. It was a defensive contest from the start, as the teams traded stops. The Jumbos could not find their offense, though, and the Mammoths jumped out to an early 12–4 lead. The period ended with Tufts trailing 16–10, and the scoring battle between Baptista and Eck had begun, as each posted six in the quarter.

Eck struck first in the second period with an early layup, but Tufts leaned on Martensen to keep the game close, as the Simsbury, Conn. native answered with a jump shot and a free throw. Martensen went to the bench not long after, however, and Tufts went cold from the field. The Mammoths marched to a 30–13 lead before Berube called a timeout. Martensen checked back in and quickly scored a layup while being fouled; she converted the free throw for a critical and-1 play. Mucciarone’s three-pointer with 1:22 left was the last score of the period and the Jumbos entered halftime down 32–19.

Tufts started fast in the third quarter with a layup from Knapp and a three-pointer from Dillon. The Mammoths seemed to be reeling, committing multiple turnovers and missing two sets of free throws. With just under four minutes to go, a layup from Baptista narrowed the gap to 34–29. With 13 points, it was Tufts’ highest scoring quarter, while it was also the hosts’ lowest with just seven.

Baptista caught fire in the fourth quarter, as she went for nine of her team’s 11 points in the period. On the other side, senior guard/forward and co-captain Hannah Hackley tossed in four, and Amherst played Tufts to a draw with 11 points of its own. With under a minute to play, Tufts drew within three points, 46–43, but Baptista’s late three to tie did not fall, and Amherst hit its free throws to take a 50–43 win.

Baptista finished with a team-leading 18 points and 13 rebounds in 38 minutes. Tufts was missing sophomore guard/forward Erica DeCandido to an ankle injury, which shortened the forwards’ rotation, resulting in an uptick of minutes for Baptista and Briggs, especially.

“The past few games, I’ve been having to play a lot … especially because Erica DeCandido is injured, so myself and a bunch of other post players just have to play some more,” Baptista said. “It’s also been a little more difficult on my body because I’m also posting up more and defending the post, I’m always trying to be big and strong. But also when you’re in a game, you’re just trying to win and do as much as you can. You always want to play.”

Tufts travels to take on Trinity (14–8) on Sunday in its last regular season contest before the NESCAC tournament begins on Feb. 17.

“Trinity is always a really scrappy aggressive team, and I just think we need to come out with a lot of energy, and I think this week [of practice] is going to be huge for us,” Harrington said. “We’re just going to look to demonstrate that defense that we really pride ourselves on.”