This weekend, the No. 4 Jumbos (27–2), fresh off of its NESCAC championship victory, competed in the first and second round of the NCAA Championship Tournament. In Tufts’ 11th successive trip to the NCAA tournament, the team defeated Western New England and Haverford to secure their ninth Sweet 16 appearance in program history.
Junior guard/forward and co-captain Erica DeCandido addressed what the team must do moving forward in the tournament.
“I think we’re just super excited,” DeCandido said. “[The games were] true NCAA wins, and all teams are coming out to play this time of the year … because [everyone’s] season is on the line, so they really just want to go after it. We just have to be the team that wants it more.”
The Jumbos hosted the Western New England College Golden Bears (20–9) on Friday night, followed by a Saturday evening game against the Haverford College Black Squirrels (22–7). While Tufts defeated Western New England by a comfortable final score of 70–44 on Friday night, the team found it harder to get things going against an unranked Haverford College.
On Saturday, the Black Squirrels posed a similar threat to the defensively driven NESCAC clashes last week against the No. 6 Amherst Mammoths and No. 3 Bowdoin Polar Bears. The score remained close throughout the 60 minutes, with the Jumbos edging out the Black Squirrels in the fourth quarter and winning by a tally of 52–46. The game marked the third lowest-scoring contest of the season for the Jumbos: They only scored fewer points in their two games against Amherst this season.
On Saturday, the Black Squirrels juggled the score and executed effectively against the strong defense, rapidly finding themselves with an early 5–3 lead over the Jumbos. Although Tufts quickly regained the lead and converted 15 points in the first quarter, Haverford stayed close behind them, closing out the quarter trailing just 15–13 against the Jumbos.
Following their promising first quarter, the Black Squirrels capitalized on finding holes in the Jumbos’ defense throughout the remainder of the first half. Although Tufts scored an unanswered six points to open the second quarter, Haverford quickly rallied. Haverford junior guard Anna-Sophia Capizzi went on a streak, scoring an unanswered eight points, including two 3-pointers, to level the game at 21 apiece going into the half. Haverford’s unanswered points came as a result of their pressing defense, forcing the hosts to convert just one of their 11 field goal attempts for a disappointing 9.1 percent.
The hosts struggled to regain a solid lead in the third quarter as the Black Squirrels continued to barrel down on the Jumbos’ offense. Tufts kept up by driving the basket; out of the Jumbos’ eight made field goals, four were layups, with two by DeCandido.
Despite the Jumbos’ improvements in scoring, the Black Squirrels continued to demonstrate their willingness to stay in the tournament and not be sent home packing. The Black Squirrels outscored the Jumbos 17–16 in the third quarter, which included a ridiculous layup by junior guard Maddie Galic that left spectators in shock and tied the score at 35–35; her and-one conversion gave the visitors the lead. In fact, Haverford closed out the quarter by completing three consecutive free throws, taking a promising 38–35 lead going into the fourth quarter. However, Jumbo first-year guard Molly Ryan showed that the Jumbos had no intention of going down early. With just one second remaining on the clock, Ryan hit a quick jump shot, knocking down two points for the Jumbos at the buzzer and sending them into the fourth quarter trailing 38–37.
Tufts capitalized off of the clutch play by Ryan and proceeded to crush Haverford’s playoff hopes in the fourth quarter. Reinvigorating the defense that carried the team to the NESCAC Championship, Tufts pressured Haverford into scoring just three out of their 11 field goals in the fourth quarter, good for just 27.3 percent. With the defense looking solidified, Jumbo senior co-captain and guard Jac Knapp, along with DeCandido, led the charge for the Jumbos. While the Jumbos continually poured points in from range as well as from the paint, it was their chances at the line that eventually led the Jumbos to victory in the fourth quarter. The Jumbos went eight-for-10 on free throws, amounting to eight out of their 15 points of the fourth quarter.
With under 30 seconds remaining in the game, the Jumbos had worked their way to a three-possession game at a score of 52–46, and as a result went on to win the game by said score. That night, the Jumbos were led by the rallying efforts of DeCandido, who scored a whopping 20 points over the course of regulation, tying her second-highest scoring effort of the season.
Coach Carla Berube, who has led the team to all of their NCAA championship tournament appearances in program history, spoke about the tough win on Saturday night.
“It was good enough to win two games. I’m not sure if it was our best basketball, but in the times where we needed to play well, we did, in big moments especially in last night’s game,” Berube said. “Yesterday’s game … was hard scoring. Haverford’s defense is pretty good and stingy. For us to battle through that, and get the stops we needed to and then the scores we needed to on the other end, was big.”
DeCandido also had an impressive performance on Friday night against Western New England College, converting five out of her 11 field goals along with three free throws for a combined 13 points. DeCandido was one of four Tufts players who dropped double-digit points in the team’s dominant display against Western New England. Leading among these was first-year guard Janette Wadolowski, who made all seven of her field goal attempts and scored 18 points in total.
Although the score may resemble a seemingly flawless victory for Tufts, the frequency and ease at which Tufts’ defense was breached became a cause for concern, particularly in the second quarter. Although the Golden Bears consistently struggled shooting from range, scoring just one out of their 11 attempted 3-point shots, they found success in driving the paint and finding previously unknown holes in the Jumbo defense. In addition to their three layups, the Golden Bears got 10 free throws, of which they completed seven for a 70 percent conversion rate. The Golden Bears closed out the second quarter by outscoring the Jumbos 17–13, and went into the half trailing just 36–27.
The Golden Bears were unable to replicate their success from the second quarter coming out of the break, as the driving force of the Jumbos scored at will, with DeCandido putting up 10 points in the third quarter. DeCandido was constantly able to find space in the post as the Jumbos ultimately finished the game as the offensive powerhouse they’ve proven themselves to be this season, closing out the game with a final score of 70–44.
DeCandido spoke about the team’s challenges in the second quarter.
“At least for Friday’s game, it was the first NCAA game for our [first-years], and kind of the first one of the season, so we were really excited to get started on our home court,” DeCandido said. “The whole thing about the NCAA tournament is the fact that if you want to advance, you have to win. After we won on Friday, we had to completely forget about it and move on to the next team.”
Berube echoed DeCandido’s words regarding the competitiveness of play in the NCAA tournament.
“Overall, at this time of the year, it’s about surviving and advancing and making it to the next round,” Berube said. “We’ve done that, and we’ll watch some film and work on things over the next week to get ready for our next opponent, Messiah.”
With two wins under their belt and the victory over Haverford, Tufts moves on to face Messiah College (28–1) in the Sweet 16 on Friday in a location that remains to be announced. Although the Messiah College Falcons are on a 28-game winning streak following an opening season loss, they haven’t faced a dominating force quite like the Jumbos so far this season. Should Tufts come out on top, they will advance to their seventh Elite Eight appearance in program history and be one step closer to their ultimate goal: an NCAA title.