Tufts saw off Williams on Saturday at Cousens Gym and moved on to the NESCAC semi-finals for the sixth straight season with a 75–51 victory over its sixth-seeded rivals.
Despite beating Williams twice already this season, Tufts did not take anything for granted.
“We knew we were playing them for the third time and we knew that both of us were playing to move on to the semis,” sophomore guard/forward Emily Briggs said. “We knew they would bring their best game and so mentally we knew we had to come out really, really tough and [with] a ‘punch first’ mentality. So I think overall, we did that. There were some ups and downs in the game, but that’s normal. [For the large part] I think we really were in attack mode.”
The only real blip in the afternoon for the Jumbos came on the first possession. Ephs’ senior guard Lauren Vostal stole the ball from junior guard Cailin Harrington on the opening possession and made an easy layup to give the visitors the lead. Senior guard and co-captain Jac Knapp responded immediately with a 3-point shot to set the tone for the first 10 minutes.
The frenetic start to the game continued as Williams’ sophomore guard Maggie Meehan and Knapp traded baskets to keep the scores close. Knapp then gave the Jumbos a 7–4 lead after first-year guard Molly Ryan stole the ball back from Williams with great hustle play. Both Ryan and Briggs added shots from downtown to give the hosts a six-point lead, forcing Williams’ coach Pat Manning to call a timeout.
“They started hurting us in transition. We had some open looks that we missed and they just took off and scored in transition [as] we didn’t get back,” Manning said. “I also didn’t think we closed out as we should have on some of those shots. They shot really well from the threes in the first quarter especially.”
Despite the timeout, the Jumbos started to pull away, establishing a 10-point lead through Briggs’ lay-up with 5:33 to play in the quarter. Tufts’ defense also went into lock-down mode, as Briggs, junior guard/forward and co-captain Erica DeCandido and first-year guard Janette Wadolowski all recorded steals to keep the team’s offense going. The Jumbos established a 31–14 lead after 10 minutes.
Coach Carla Berube explained her team’s offensive success in the first period.
“We just shared the ball really well and found the open player at the right time,” Berube said. “I thought Erica did a good job of attacking the rim but also making some outside shots, and Jac [did] the same thing. We feel like good things are going to happen and then other players just did some really great things, playing their role[s] as well.”
From then on it was not a matter of if the Jumbos would win but rather by how much. Meehan and Topper managed to cut the Jumbos’ lead down to 12, forcing Berube to take a timeout two minutes into the second quarter. The Jumbos regained some momentum as the period saw both sides tightening up on defense, with the hosts entering the locker room with a 42–23 half-time lead.
Coming out of the break, the Jumbos regained some of their offensive initiative. The Jumbos were aggressive on the offensive backboard and constantly attacked the inside, either through Knapp’s strong drives or through DeCandido’s clever passes to the post. They also looked sharper than their opponents — Ryan found DeCandido on a quick inbound pass for the easy layup with 4:48 to play.
“Two things that really hurt us were our turnovers and giving up 17 [offensive] boards,” Manning said. “We played really good [defense] for like 28 seconds and then at the end of the shot clock we give up an [offensive] board that usually resulted in a foul, so that’s something we have to focus improving on.”
As the clock wound down, Berube slowly emptied her bench. While the Jumbos picked up a few fouls that allowed the visiting Ephs to narrow the deficit, victory was never in doubt. The final minutes also saw a return into the rotation for sophomore forward Katie Butler. Butler’s first basket was Tufts’ last of the afternoon, drawing much celebration from the Tufts’ bench with 13 seconds to play.
Despite the scoreline, both Meehan and Topper dominated on the offensive side for Williams. The duo played close to the full 40 minutes, combining for 42 of Williams’ 51 points. Both coaches praised the sophomore duo, Berube elaborating on the challenge to play against Williams’ guards.
“It was tough,” Berube said. “[Williams was] making some tough shots, but their offense was revolving around them so they’re going to get a lot of looks, because that’s what they’re trying to do. And I thought we made them work really hard. Here and there, they got some easier looks but for the most part [our defense] was pretty good. They’re two very good guards and young guards and we’re going to see them for a couple more years here, and they’re just going to get better and better.”
Manning also singled out sophomore guard Gabby Martin’s performance for praise as her team fell short.
“Maggie Meehan and Mikaela Topper — they elevated their games today,” Manning said. “Gabby Martin, same thing. She had four [offensive] boards and two assists and two steals, so Gabby had a solid day. Three sophomores, so it’s a good learning experience for us. Tufts is one of the best teams in the country and we need to be able to elevate our level of play — that’s where we wanna get. I think that’s incentive for our returning players in the off-season.”
Meanwhile for Tufts, its postseason continues into next weekend where it faces arch-rivals Amherst at Bowdoin; in the other semi-final, Middlebury duels with Bowdoin. The winners will duke it out for NESCAC supremacy on Sunday.
The Proboscidean affair between Tufts and Amherst tips off at 4 p.m. this Saturday.