Jumbos’ postseason run ends with 66–48 loss to Polar Bears in Elite Eight

Senior forward and co-captain Melissa Baptista puts up a shot during Tufts' NCAA tournament win over Westfield State on March 2. Eddie Samuels / The Tufts Daily

Playing in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament on Saturday night, the Tufts women’s basketball team fell to a familiar foe: Bowdoin. The Jumbos defeated the Polar Bears in the NESCAC tournament semifinals on Feb. 24, with a decisive 60–48 victory. That win was redemption for Tufts, as Bowdoin won 66–53 in the teams’ regular-season matchup on Jan. 6. In Sunday’s rubber match, Bowdoin earned its second victory over Tufts, with a 66–48 victory, ending its conference rival’s season. Tufts first-year forward Angela Alibrandi spoke about how the team’s familiarity with Bowdoin was a huge part of its game plan.

“Our game plan was to really know their players and know their tendencies, and make sure we defend them,” Alibrandi said. “[We wanted to] do the same thing we did [last time], which was [to make] stops and score … and really know their personnel.”

Bowdoin took a huge lead in the first quarter on Saturday, finishing with a 20–8 advantage. Senior forward and co-captain Melissa Baptista scored seven of the Jumbos’ eight points. In the second quarter, the Jumbos fought hard to make up the deficit, and they cut the Polar Bears’ lead to 10 points at halftime, with a 33–23 scoreline. Baptista ultimately totaled 12 points, three rebounds and two blocks in the first half to lead the Jumbos, while sophomore forward Erica DeCandido and junior guard Jac Knapp each added five points. For Bowdoin, junior guard Taylor Choate scored 10 points, while seven other players contributed to its first half lead. The Jumbos knew they had to fight hard in the second half to edge out their opponent and continue to build off of the momentum they had built in the first.

Going into half, we had cut their lead down to 10,” Knapp said. “We kind of regained some momentum. They had a lot of the momentum in the beginning of the game, but in the second quarter we picked it up and started to play … Jumbo basketball, and the momentum shifted. Coach [Carla Berube]’s message to us during halftime was [that] we had 20 more minutes, and we had to leave it all out there. We had to play for our seniors, play for this team and play for a chance to keep advancing and play next weekend.”

Baptista scored Tufts’ first six points of the third quarter, while Bowdoin senior forward Lydia Caputi made a layup to maintain the lead. At the 4:24 mark, DeCandido’s layup brought the Jumbos within six of their opponent, 37–31. However, Bowdoin ended the quarter on a 7–2 run to take an 11-point lead into the final period.

The Polar Bears then went on a 13–0 run to begin the fourth, essentially sealing the end result. Knapp responded at the 5:05 mark with a layup for the Jumbos’ first points of the quarter, but Choate did the same for her team on the other end of the court soon after. While the Jumbos were unable to catch the Polar Bears, they fought through the final whistle with tenacious full-court pressure. In the final game of her collegiate career, Baptista led Tufts in points (18) and rebounds (six), while also recording two steals and two blocks. Knapp finished with 12 points, four rebounds and four steals.

On Friday, Tufts snapped Messiah’s 13-game winning streak to book its ticket to the Elite Eight for the fifth straight year. The Jumbos put up the first points of the game at the 7:34 mark of the first quarter with Knapp’s two free throws. DeCandido then added two more following a steal by senior guard and co-captain Lauren Dillon. Tufts extended its lead to 8–0 on a layup by Knapp and a jump shot by Baptista. Messiah sophomore forward Leah Springer scored her team’s first points with 4:31 remaining in the quarter to cut Tufts’ lead to six. However, Tufts charged ahead, extending its lead to 22–8 by the end of the quarter.

The Jumbos continued to impress on both ends of the court in the second frame. While Springer opened the scoring with a pair of free throws, DeCandido responded with a jump shot. The rest of the quarter was all Tufts, as the team went into halftime with a 42–16 lead. DeCandido tallied 16 points, two rebounds, a block and a steal in the first half, while Knapp — who played all 20 minutes — posted 15 of her own, while adding three rebounds, three steals and two assists. Dillon finished the half with six points and a team-leading four assists, to go with a pair of rebounds and steals. Springer was the Falcons’ leading scorer, coming off the bench to contribute six.

The third quarter began with two made free throws by Baptista and another layup by Knapp. At the 8:01 mark, Knapp stole the ball from Messiah junior guard Maci Thornton and added two more points. The Westfield, N.J. native then converted a three-pointer off a dish from Dillon. Messiah responded with 10 points in the final five-and-a-half minutes of the quarter, but Tufts went into the fourth with a commanding 55–26 lead.

Tufts sophomore guard Lily Paro knocked down a couple of three-pointers in the first minute of the final quarter to continue the Jumbos’ scoring barrage. Alibrandi also made her presence known off the bench, scoring five straight points, which included an old-fashioned three-point play and a layup. The Jumbos ultimately walked away with a dominant 70–39 victory.

Knapp finished the day with a team-leading 23 points, her career-high. DeCandido added 16 points and a team-high six rebounds, as well as two steals and two blocks. Dillon led the team in assists with seven, and also posted six points, four steals and three rebounds. Due to their large lead, the Jumbos were able to give valuable tournament experience to many of their bench players, who combined to score 18 points. Tufts didn’t let a single opposing player reach double-digit points, as Messiah senior forward Hannah Brown led her team with nine.

With the Elite Eight exit, Tufts ends the season with a 26–5 record. The Jumbos will graduate four highly decorated seniors — Baptista, Dillon, co-captain guard Jennie Mucciarone and guard Gina Doyle — who went 114–15 in their four years. Baptista finishes her stellar career as the third-leading scorer (1,337 points) and the fifth-leading rebounder in program history. Dillon, a two-time captain for Tufts, finishes as the team’s all-time leader in assists and steals. Knapp spoke to how much the seniors have meant to the team, as each one helped create its identity.

Our seniors are a huge part of where we are and a huge part of the reason our program is what it is,” Knapp said. “They are such a special group, the four of them. They have done so much for this program. They are great leaders, they really showed the rest of us … how much hard work can pay off and the work ethic you need to play on this team. We wouldn’t have been where we were without them. We are really going to miss them next year.”

Alibrandi echoed her teammate’s sentiments, adding that the graduating seniors helped her and her fellow first-years adjust to being members of the team.

“The seniors, especially, did a great job of showing all of us the ropes and telling us how it is supposed to go. [They] really created those expectations for us, and [inspired] all of us to be better, so as we look to the future, we know to follow their example and be role models for the … girls who will eventually come here. [They taught us that] it’s all about being part of the program and every day trying to make yourself better, trying to make your teammates better and playing well so that you have a great time and a fun experience.”


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