Women’s basketball prepares for semifinal against rival Amherst

Senior guard and co-captain Jac Knapp drives towards the basket in Tufts' 75–51 victory over Williams on Feb. 16. (Yuan Jun Chee / The Tufts Daily)

It’s been 10,000 years since the legendary mammoth and the mighty elephant coexisted on Earth. But on Saturday, the two behemoths clash again as the juggernaut No. 6-ranked Tufts Jumbos Women’s Basketball team (23–2) travels to Brunswick, Maine to face off against their rivals, the No. 4-ranked Amherst College Mammoths (23–2). The stakes have not been higher this season.

The match signifies not only a rematch after the Jumbos’ 50–40 defeat to the Mammoths on Feb. 1 but also a key semifinal game in the NESCAC tournament. The team to come out on top will meet either the Middlebury Panthers (19–6) or the top-seeded, undefeated Bowdoin Polar Bears (25–0) — who also battle Saturday in the adjacent NESCAC tournament semifinal game — in the tournament final. The Jumbos remain hungry for the crown; the last time they were NESCAC champions was in the 20142015 season.

Of course, the circumstances of Saturday’s game are ones that the Jumbos have grown all too familiar with over the past several years. In every season since 2015–2016, the Jumbos have advanced through the NESCAC tournament to face the Mammoths in the final, only to be defeated in a series of games that were marked by close offensive scoring and near perfectly-executed defensive play. This seems to be the case when playing the Mammoths; in fact, starting from the 2015–2016 season, every single one of the Jumbos’ lowest scoring performances of the season came at the hands of the Mammoths. The last time the Jumbos beat the Mammoths was in a one-point victory on Feb. 6, 2016, where the Jumbos won 52–51. Since then, the Mammoths have gone on to win three NESCAC finals as well as two national championship titles.

All things considered, the Jumbos have an opportunity this year to capitalize on changes from the Mammoths. This season has marked the Mammoths’ worst regular season performance since the 2014–2015 season, where they also went 23–2. Of course, by no means does this mean that Amherst has not performed at an elite level throughout the past several years. After all, for the past two years in a row, the Mammoths have gone undefeated in both the regular and postseason. Nevertheless, this past offseason marked the departure of many key players from the Amherst team, such as six-foot guard/forward Emma McCarthy, who averaged 10.3 points a game in the 2017–2018 season and was the Final Four MVP last year. And while, remarkably, the Mammoths have stepped up their offensive statistics, scoring an average of 66.8 points per game in comparison to last year’s 61.1 points per game, the Mammoths have also given up on average almost 10 points more against their opponents (48.2 points this year compared to 38.8 points allowed last year).

Tufts coach Carla Berube addressed some of the differences with this newly-evolved Amherst team, while also emphasizing that the Amherst defense is one of the toughest elements of the team to navigate through.

“Amherst is Amherst,” she said. “I think they might have had a little bit more offensive power, especially in the post, with McCarthy for the last couple of years, but I think they’ve also got some great outside shooting that they may not have had. But they’re still very stingy on defense; they’re long and they make up a lot of ground with their length and ability to close out on shooters.”

Indeed, shooting from range has been a key focus of Amherst’s ability to put points on the board so far this season. Led by the likes of junior guard Hannah Fox, who has scored a whopping 407 points this season and leads the team in 3-pointers made with 46, Amherst has shown that they’re willing to adapt towards shooting from range. Although the Mammoths are still 345 points away from trying their total points scored last season, they are only three completed 3-pointers away from tying their total amount of shots made from downtown last season.

Despite the Mammoths’ colossal shooting ability, if the Jumbos’ Feb. 1 performance and ultimate defeat against the Mammoths serves as any indication towards the upcoming rematch, Tufts has the opportunity to find victory on Saturday and move on to the NESCAC final. In order to do so, however, the Jumbos must focus on both controlling the basket and successfully converting possessions into points.

After all, the last time the Jumbos and Mammoths found each other on the court, it was a defensive battle. The Jumbos completed just 12 out of their 55 attempted field goals for 21.8 percent. While the Jumbo defense showed promise and an ability to contain the Mammoths, the offense must be able to effectively convert points both from the paint and from range if they are to come out victorious on Saturday.

Berube spoke about what the team must accomplish in order to obtain the outcome it’s hungry for.

“It’s going to be important to take care of the ball. [We need to] be patient but strong, cut hard and make shots,” Berube said. “We got some good shots last time we played them, and we just didn’t knock them down. That’s the name of the game — being able to put the ball in the basket — so [we’re] just looking forward to seeing how we compete on Saturday.”

Fortunately, the Jumbo roster is composed of outstanding players who are more than prepared to compete on Saturday. With the likes of prolific scorers such as senior guard and co-captain Jac Knapp and junior guard/forward and co-captain Erica DeCandido — who together lead the team with 338 and 308 respective points on the season — the Jumbos are averaging a 45.2 field goal percentage, the highest their field goal percentage has been in a season since the Jumbos last beat the Mammoths. Along with veteran players in Knapp and DeCandido, newer players have also stepped up and immediately made an impact. In addition to proving themselves as forces to be reckoned with on the defensive side of the ball, first-year guards Molly Ryan, Janette Wadolowski and Sofia Rosa have averaged a combined 19.7 points per game so far this season.

Above all, the team’s mentality and attitude towards winning will be the biggest factor in determining whether or not the Jumbos make it to the NESCAC final. All season long, the Jumbos have shown time and time again that no matter what the score is, even if they’re up by a huge margin, the Jumbos always put their full effort into each and every play. DeCandido spoke about this driving team mentality, focusing on how it will help the Jumbos reach their ultimate goal of an NCAA title.

“People always say you’re only as good as your next play,” DeCandido said. “It’s really the nitty gritty plays that are going to win you the game. I think we have a lot of players on the team that have that mentality too, and that’s what really drives us.”

Tusks will clash in what is bound to be a hard-fought, close-scoring and overall defensive show of two NESCAC dynasties. Tip-off is at 4 p.m. in Morrell Gymnasium at Bowdoin College.