Tufts consolidated its defensive turnaround since the start of the year with a home victory over Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) and two important conference road wins to keep pace with the NESCAC leaders Bowdoin. With the three wins, the Jumbos move up to fourth in the nation and sit at 19–1, just one game behind the Bowdoin Polar Bears in the NESCAC.
Even with the improvement the Jumbos have shown on defense, coach Carla Berube said she believes her team can still get better.
“It couldn’t get any worse [from the start of the season],” Berube said. “We’re in a better place but there’s still a lot of room for us to grow and get better. It’s great having this week [as] a full week of practice, we’ll get in the gym again and have some really important practices in too to keep working on our defense and all facets of the game.”
In a key double-header on the road on Saturday, Tufts picked up a 71–48 win at Wesleyan – ranked eighth in the NESCAC – to keep its momentum heading into the business end of its regular season. In a powerful first-quarter performance, Wesleyan was held to just four points on its own home court. The Cardinals fought their way back into the game in the second quarter, but the Jumbos entered the break with a 30–20 lead.
Berube attributed the problems in the second quarter to making too many turnovers, an assessment senior co-captain guard Jac Knapp agreed with.
“In the second quarter, we kind of let our defense down a little bit,” Knapp said. “We were getting caught on screens, we weren’t really talking or communicating, we weren’t playing like any help defense. And then on offense, we are forcing things and normally our defense drives our offense so it wasn’t working, but we were able to calm down, regroup and be able to do better in the second half.”
Tufts came out of the break firing on all cylinders, leading to a 28–14 third-quarter performance. Knapp led the game with 23 points, including 15 from the free-throw line. Much of the Jumbos’ success in this game came from their ability to convert foul shots, as they went 86.7 percent from the line on a season-high 30 attempts.
Berube spoke to both the tactical and mental adjustments the team made in the game that allowed the team to dominate the way it did.
“We settled in the second half a lot better and made some plays defensively that I think led to easy offense and got us to the line a lot,” Berube said. “We attacked a lot in the second half and Jac Knapp getting 16 free throws is just awesome, she was in attack mode throughout the whole game. Once we did a better job on the defensive boards and got to the passing lanes, got some easy opportunities offensively we were able to just settle in and play our basketball.”
The day before, Tufts defeated Conn. College 66–45. The Jumbos never trailed in that game, but were put to the test in an even first quarter that resulted in a 14–14 tie after 10 minutes. Berube described the game as “hectic,” as both teams had players that were in foul trouble. Tufts’ starters each finished with at least three personal fouls, while Conn. College’s junior guard Sami Ashton and junior forward Dana Muckstadt were also in trouble with four personal fouls.
“They were calling it really tightly both ways,” Berube said. “We were having a little trouble just containing one of their guards and once we were able to do that and have our help defense be there we were able to just get stops and get scores out of our stops.”
Tufts started the week with a 68–31 victory over WPI on Tuesday, Jan. 22. Once again, the Jumbos led from the start, and put on a defensive masterclass; they held the visitors to single-digit points in each of the first three quarters. Two underclassmen, sophomore guard Erin Poindexter-McHan and first-year guard Janette Wadolowski, led Tufts’ scoring off the bench, putting up 11 and 13 points, respectively.
“Our whole bench played amazing and that’s something that we need coming into these bigger games … We do need to be able to have sparks off the bench,” Knapp said. “Erin and Janette and a few others really stepped up and made some really big plays and I couldn’t be more happy for them.”
In Tufts’ last four games of the regular season, it faces three conference opponents, most notably its arch-rival Amherst on Friday night. The Jumbos’ chance to finish first in the NESCAC since the 2015–2016 season rides on this highly anticipated matchup.
The Jumbos have faced the Mammoths on seven occasions in the last three years, with the Jumbos’ last victory coming on Feb. 6, 2016 when they eked out a one-point 52–51 road win. Berube pointed out that coach G. P. Gromacki’s team is a challenging outfit to play against.
“Against Amherst, you’ve got to be able to score the basketball,” Berube said. “They’re such a great defensive team that we’ve got to find ways to put the ball in the basket, working on ways to do that. They have a couple really good players that are great offensive weapons, so we need to have a full team defensive effort and then hopefully that can lead to easy offense.”
Knapp believes the team needs to demonstrate its strength and depth once again if it wants to come out victorious.
“We really need to have a great week in practice this week to make sure we’re focused and we’re ready,” Knapp said. “It’s going to take one through 17—every member of this team is going to have to be locked in. We’re all really excited to get another chance to play Amherst and if we play as a team we execute our offense and we play great defense, I think we’re going to come out on top.”
Wadolowski, who had a breakout week, knows she’ll be ready when called upon from the bench heading into the final games of the regular season.
“Our bench is going to be very important in the upcoming games and has been in previous games as well,” Wadolowski said. “Coach always stresses about having our bench be ready to go in at any time and just helping out the starters and just being there for each other honestly, so I think it’s very important just to have a good team as a whole, be out there on court cheering each other on.”
Third-in-NESCAC Amherst looks to overtake second-place Tufts in a pivotal battle with post-season implications. The Jumbos tip off against the Mammoths at 7 p.m. in Cousens Gymnasium in what is sure to be a Proboscidean classic.