Tufts comes up just short in NESCAC Championship game for third straight year

Senior guard and co-captain Lauren Dillon surveys the court in the NESCAC quarterfinals against Conn. College on Feb. 17. Eddie Samuels / The Tufts Daily

The Tufts women’s basketball team continued its run through the NESCAC tournament over the weekend. On Saturday, Tufts defeated Bowdoin to advance to its fifth straight NESCAC Championship game the following day, where it fell just short in a low-scoring contest to a familiar foe: Amherst. The Mammoths and Jumbos have met in the conference championship in four of the last five years; in addition, Amherst defeated Tufts in last year’s NCAA Championship game, 52–29. Heading into Sunday’s matchup, the Jumbos knew they would face stiff competition.

“I think since we have played Amherst so many times, we really do know them well and they know us well,” junior guard Jac Knapp said. “Going into the game, it was about knowing personnel [and] executing the game plan.”

The first quarter opened up with a steal by Tufts sophomore forward Erica DeCandido, which led to a made jump shot by first-year forward Emily Briggs. The teams then exchanged a mix of turnovers and steals, before the Jumbos took a 6–2 lead just over four minutes into the game via layups from DeCandido and senior forward Melissa Baptista. The lead was quickly cut, as Amherst sophomore guard Madeline Eck knocked down a three-pointer to bring her team back within one. Led by Baptista’s seven points, however, Tufts held a 14–11 lead at the end of the quarter.

The second quarter saw an array of players put points on the board. Amherst took the lead for over two minutes early in the frame before Tufts was able to climb back on top on a pair of DeCandido free throws. Sophomore guard Hannah Fox tallied six points for the hosts, but the Jumbos — fueled by DeCandido (four points) and Knapp (three) — were able to thwart their charge and secure a 23–21 lead at the half.

Tufts opened the second half the same way it began the first, with Knapp forcing an Amherst turnover. The Jumbos were unable to convert on the offensive half of the court, however, as senior guard and co-captain Lauren Dillon missed a shot from behind the arc. Amherst quickly took the lead on an and-1 layup by senior forward and co-captain Hannah Hackley, who converted the free throw, too. The Mammoths then charged out to a six-point lead on the Jumbos, 29–23, converting five of six free-throw attempts in a two minute span. Knapp responded with an old-fashioned three-point play of her own to cut the Amherst lead in half, before Dillon knocked down a three-pointer to tie the score at 29 at the midway point of the third quarter.

The Jumbos continued to keep the score close, but were unable to regain the upper hand, as they trailed 35–32 at the end of the penultimate quarter. Knapp netted a team-high six points in the frame, to go along with two rebounds, while Hackley put up six for Amherst and grabbed four rebounds. Going into the fourth quarter, the Jumbos knew they would have to continue their strong play to pull out a victory.

“At halftime, we definitely talked about some of the things we could do better, but we also talked a lot about the things we did well,” Knapp said. “We did play really good defense, and we were getting a lot of good looks on offense. Coach [Carla Berube] mainly told us to remain composed, not let up and keep pushing … for the next 20 minutes.” 

DeCandido echoed her teammate’s sentiment about playing tough defense and added that the team wanted to stay out of foul trouble.

“One of our main [goals] was to stay out of foul trouble,” DeCandido said. “Going into halftime, we weren’t in a lot of foul trouble, and we know that’s been a main concern of ours, so we wanted to keep that up. Our defense … drives our offense, so [Berube’s] message to us was to keep working on the defense and the offense will come.”

Just over a minute into the final quarter, Amherst increased its lead to five points, making it a 37–32 game. Baptista quickly cut the lead to three with a converted layup before DeCandido made a layup of her own to bring the score within one. Amherst added to its lead with a layup by junior guard and co-captain Emma McCarthy, but Briggs responded for Tufts by knocking down a jump shot to keep her team within a single point with just over five minutes to play. The Jumbos then knotted the score on a Baptista converted free throw at the 3:42 mark.

Amherst jumped back in front on Eck’s three-pointer, but Baptista answered with a free throw on the opposite end of the floor to cut the hosts’ lead to two with 2:41 remaining. Both defenses then locked down, as the teams failed to score for the next 2:26, a stretch that included three missed shots for the Jumbos. The visitors were forced to send the Mammoths to the free-throw line, but ironically, their focus on not committing fouls early in the game came back to hurt them. Tufts was forced to foul five times before Amherst was in the bonus, bleeding precious seconds off the clock.

Eck finally went to the line with 15 seconds remaining, where she converted both free throws to open a four-point lead. The Jumbos got the ball back, but were unable to convert on a couple of desperation efforts. The Amherst bench stormed the court at the final buzzer in celebration of its 60th consecutive victory, an all-too-familiar sight for Tufts.

Baptista scored a team-high 13 points, while Knapp posted nine of her own, in addition to notching six rebounds. Eck finished the day with a game-high 17 points, and Amherst sophomore forward Cam Hendricks tallied seven rebounds to lead all players. Despite the demoralizing result, the Jumbos will have to turn their attention to the upcoming NCAA Div. III tournament.

“We have to be able to bounce back from this [loss],” DeCandido said. “[Berube’s message] was to try and look forward.”

In Saturday’s semifinal game, Tufts avenged a January loss to Bowdoin by prevailing 60–48. Led by DeCandido’s 17 points and nine rebounds, the team earned its spot in Sunday’s championship contest. Knapp played all 40 minutes, securing a team-high 12 rebounds and putting up 16 points.

After the weekend, Tufts now boasts a 23–4 record, including an 8–2 mark in the NESCAC. In Monday’s NCAA tournament bracket reveal, the Jumbos drew the second seed in its quadrant. Tufts will host Westfield State (19–7, 11–1 in-conference), which recently won the Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference title, in the first round of the 64-team tournament on Friday.


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