The women’s basketball team lost to rival Bowdoin in the NESCAC final — a rematch of last year — bringing an end to its undefeated run. En route to their first conference championship since 2009, the Polar Bears, who have only two losses this season, avenged the Jumbos in the NESCAC tournament.
It is the ninth NESCAC title in program history for the Polar Bears, who now hold the all-time lead over the Amherst Mammoths. The Polar Bears overwhelmed the Mammoths in the semi-final 76–60 after losing badly by a score of 59–46 in the regular season. Their only other loss of the season came a month ago against the Jumbos, a 97–88 shootout that many predicted would be a preview of the NESCAC title game. On Sunday, the predictions came true, yet with a different ending.
The final was a much more cagey affair than the teams’ regular season meeting with the two national powerhouses battling for momentum and playing excellent defense. Sophomore guard Sofia Rosa had an excellent game defensively, plugging holes and blocking shots in the paint. The Jumbos ran a starting lineup featuring senior guard/forward and co-captain Erica DeCandido, senior guard Sadie Otley, sophomore guard Molly Ryan, junior guard/forward Emily Briggs and senior guard Cailin Harrington, a unit that appeared to be tiring near the end of the half as the Polar Bears stretched their lead to eight.
Bowdoin held on tight to a two or three possession lead for most of the third quarter, but Otley gave the offense life with some early buckets and key steals. DeCandido was her usual, unstoppable self for much of the game, making a number of plus-one buckets to bring the Jumbos within three points going into the fourth quarter.
As the Jumbos’ unquestioned most valuable player this season, DeCandido’s run ignited the crowd and provided real hope that the Jumbos were very much still in the game. In the fourth quarter, however, fouls became a major factor, and DeCandido was forced to sit with eight minutes to go after picking up her fourth foul. Bowdoin’s senior forward and co-captain Maddie Hasson also found herself with four fouls in the fourth, and with 6:57 left to play, both sides were without their stars.
Much of the Tufts’ offense aside from DeCandido was hot and cold throughout the night, which made DeCandido’s foul trouble all the more impactful for Tufts, led by Bowdoin alumna Jill Pace. Neither Otley, Ryan or Rosa eclipsed 10 points, and no one on the team shot well from beyond the three-point line. The Polar Bears also dominated off the glass, grabbing 42 rebounds to the Jumbos’ 29, and they also had 16 second-chance points to the Jumbos’ nine, snagging rebounds off misses late in the shot clock.
The game cannot be accurately surmised as a game that Tufts lost; Bowdoin played its style and never blinked when the crowd energy rose, and Tufts looked poised to take the lead.
“We really had to go on a run of our own in the fourth and take the lead,” Otley said. “Instead, it was kind of back and forth, and we had to play from behind most of the game.”
The closest the Jumbos got to winning was after Otley nailed a three in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter to tie the game at 52. On that play, the Polar Bears called a double team on DeCandido, who had the awareness to find a wide open Otley on the wing. It felt as though the game was about to open up for the Jumbos. As it happens, DeCandido soon picked up her fourth foul, allowing the Polar Bears to single cover and force the Jumbos’ other shot-makers to step up. Otley’s three-pointer was the Jumbos’ last of the game.
“We had been down against Amherst and Hamilton this year, but this was probably the biggest deficit of the season for us,” Otley said.
The anxiety levels were palpable in Cousens Gym, as the Jumbos started to come up empty on key offensive possessions. Being visibly outshot was a unique experience for this previously unbeatable Tufts team, which lost their first game since the NCAA Elite Eight in 2019.
“It’s definitely a bump in the road, but it put a chip on our shoulder,” Ryan said about the loss. “I think we are doing a good job being optimistic and keeping our heads up.”
The Jumbos found their way to the championship game after beating the Williams Ephs 69–63 in the semifinal on Saturday. While it felt like the Jumbos were in control for most of the game, they let the Ephs stay within striking distance until the final minute. Much of the game, however, appeared to be a good sign for Sunday’s final.
Pace and her guards, Ryan and Otley, excited their offensive cues with speed and accuracy. Williams couldn’t pick up on any of the calls, as rapid ball movement and backdoor cuts pushed the Jumbos’ lead in the third quarter. The Jumbos’ cornerstone, DeCandido, churned out 21 points, 12 rebounds and five assists. Ryan, who played with energy from the opening tip, also had a double double with 13 points and 10 rebounds.
On defense, the Jumbos had their hands full defending junior guard Maggie Meehan and senior guard Emily Chang. Chang, who had one of her best games of the season since erupting for 30 points against Trinity on Feb. 1, made a number of key shots in the last half to keep Williams close. Meehan put in a characteristically strong effort with 18 points but went cold from beyond the arc in the closing minutes, eventually finishing two for nine.
Following Sunday’s championship game, Otley said that the mood in the locker room was disappointment, but at the same time, the players are hungry to get back to business in the NCAA tournament next week. Both Otley and Ryan were on the same page about how the team is handling the loss, a good sign for a bounce-back headed into the national competition.
“I don’t think it will be hard [to respond to the loss],” Ryan said. “If anything, this loss is going to push us to be better.”
Perhaps, it will prove to be a blessing that the Jumbos learned how to lose before the NCAA tournament. Now, they no longer have the pressure of keeping up an undefeated season, but they do have the fuel to avenge their loss and bring home a national title to Medford.
The NCAA Div. III bracket will be released today at 2:30 p.m., with Tufts likely to get an at-large bid.