Jumbos advance to Sweet Sixteen for seventh straight year

Sophomore guard Sadie Otley shoots a free throw during Tufts' NCAA tournament first-round win over Westfield State on March 2. Eddie Samuels / The Tufts Daily

No. 8 Tufts (25–4) is through to its seventh consecutive NCAA Div. III tournament Sweet Sixteen appearance after it comprehensively saw off the challenges of Westfield State (19–8) and Ithaca (21–8) at Cousens Gym this weekend.

On Saturday, the Jumbos defeated the Ithaca Bombers, 61–39. Tufts’ defense was on display, as Ithaca scored fewer than 40 points for the first time this season. Senior forward Melissa Baptista led Tufts with a game-high 19 points, while also contributing six rebounds and four blocks. The bench was crucial to the Jumbos’ victory as well. Junior forward Katie Martensen chipped in 12 points and five boards, while sophomore guard Cailin Harrington led all players with eight rebounds.

While the scoreline might suggest a comfortable Tufts victory, the start was anything but, as the teams traded baskets easily in the opening six minutes. Early on, Tufts’ defense broke down on a few occasions, giving Ithaca some easy looks on the inside. In particular, the Jumbos had problems stopping junior guard Meghan Pickell, who picked up nine first-quarter points for the visitors and managed to squeeze in her shots with barely any time left on the shot clock.

The Jumbos went on a 9–2 run to close the quarter and establish a relatively comfortable 22–13 lead. The highlight of the Tufts barrage came with just over three minutes remaining in the period. After Tufts’ sophomore forward Erica DeCandido blocked a shot attempt by Ithaca junior guard Sara Jackson, Pickell missed a three-point attempt. Harrington grabbed the rebound, and the Jumbos quickly converted their possession into two points on a DeCandido layup via junior guard Jac Knapp’s astute pass.

However, Tufts’ offense struggled to match the same levels of production early in the second quarter. After Baptista split a pair of free throws with 7:53 left in the half to give Tufts a 23–14 lead, Ithaca was able to close the gap to as few as three points on senior guard/forward Julie Yacovoni’s layup with 4:04 remaining in the second quarter. Despite Ithaca’s effort, Tufts stayed in front — in large part due to its success in getting to the line. The Jumbos entered the break leading 35–24.

The teams were evenly matched in the third quarter, and Tufts could add only two points to its lead heading into the fourth. The Bombers eventually got into foul trouble, as their sophomore forward Cassidy O’Malley — the visitors’ leading scorer this season and a player who troubled the Jumbos with her ability to convert shots in tight situations — fouled out early in the fourth quarter. Tufts also figured out how to stop Pickell —the West Chester, Pa. native did not score again after the first quarter — which left Ithaca with little attacking output. The Bombers managed just four points in the fourth quarter, and the hosts capitalized with a comfortable 22-point victory.

“Both O’Malley and Yacovoni are two very good players,” Tufts coach Carla Berube said. “We did a really good job attacking the paint and the basket, and it led to getting them into foul trouble and us getting some easy points from the free throw line. [O’Malley fouling out] was a huge key to the game because [she] is a very good scorer, and she’s a big defensive presence in the lane, too.”

A day earlier, Tufts defeated the three-time reigning Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference (MASCAC) champion, Westfield State, 71–54. The key to the victory was a dominant Tufts defense, which held its MASCAC opponent to well below its season scoring average of 87.2 points per game. The Jumbos were able to slow down the Owls’ offensive production, limiting their leading scorer, junior guard Lucy Barrett, to just five points on 2-of-10 shooting (including 0-for-6 from behind the arc).

Senior guard and co-captain Lauren Dillon commented on the strength of Tufts’ defensive performance.

“I think we played a lot of great offensive teams, but I don’t know that either of those teams have seen a defense like ours that we get to test out in the NESCAC every weekend,” Dillon said. “We had [their offense] in mind, but we had all the confidence in the world in our defense and knew that if we played our defense, we would come out with the win.”

Westfield State modeled its game plan on Paul Westhead’s famed Grinnell System, utilizing a full-court press throughout the game and often double-teaming Tufts in the backcourt. To keep up with their defensive strategy, the Owls frequently substituted their entire five. It worked to some degree, as the Jumbos gave up the ball a season-high 24 times. 

“It was a little stressful for myself and our team because we don’t see anything like that in the NESCAC,” Berube said. “We’ve never gone against this system before, so it took us a little bit to get a little used to it. I’m not sure if we ever felt comfortable, but we ended up making plays on the defensive end to slow them down a bit, and it created some easy opportunities for us offensively, so it was good to just get through that game.”

Westfield State’s high-press system, facing one of the top defenses in the country, prevented them from getting into a rhythm, however, as Tufts was easily able to play its way out of the press and capitalize on a numerical advantage in the frontcourt. The Jumbos’ victory was powered by their fast start to the game and the NESCAC runners-up never trailed.

The team went on a 14–2 run in the game’s first seven minutes, ultimately ending the opening quarter up 21–11, in large part due to Knapp’s seven points, Baptista’s five and DeCandido’s four.

In another atypical second quarter for the Jumbos, though, the visitors were able to claw themselves back into contention. Baptista and Westfield State junior guard Kierra McCarthy traded baskets before Harrington’s two free throws gave Tufts a 12-point lead. The visitors then went on a 7–0 run to draw within five. That was the closest they got to the Jumbos for the rest of the game, however, as Harrington ended the Owls’ run with a layup with 5:33 to play before the half.

Tufts came out firing on all cylinders and was able to restore control in the third quarter. Entering the second half with a 37–27 lead, Tufts went on a 13–4 run to extend the lead to 19. The Jumbos scored 23 points in the quarter, with eight from Baptista and six from Dillon. With a 20-point lead going into the final frame, Tufts emptied its bench and emerged with a comfortable victory.

Harrington finished as the Jumbos’ leading scorer with 17 points to go along with eight rebounds. Baptista filled the scoresheet by compiling 15 points, eight rebounds, three assists, two steals and three blocks. Knapp had 15 points and six rebounds of her own, while Dillon led all players with four steals in addition to her eight points.

Dillon spoke about the importance of the bench this past weekend.

“Those were absolutely massive contributions,” Dillon said. “Cailin had her career-high [in points] on Friday night, and it couldn’t have come at a better timing. We needed someone to make the little plays and get easy points and Cailin did her part. [Katie Martensen] stepped up a lot yesterday, and we’re going to need that going forward. We’re not a team that likes to play all five starters, so we’re going to need [the bench] to come in and make valuable contributions and just continue doing what they did this weekend.”

The Jumbos will take on the No. 15 Messiah Falcons (27–2) in the Sweet Sixteen on Friday in Scranton, Pa. With a victory, Tufts would face the winner of Friday’s matchup between Scranton and NESCAC rival Bowdoin.