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The Amherst problem: Jumbos to take sibling rivalry head−on

Published: Friday, February 1, 2013

Updated: Friday, February 1, 2013 11:02

Everyone knows the tried−and−true story of sibling rivalries.

For years, the older sibling dominates, if for no other reason than they are consistently bigger, stronger and more experienced. Sometimes, the gap between the two can border on embarrassment.

But eventually the older sibling plateaus, reaching their physical peak. And the younger sibling can finally bridge the gap, get on a level playing field and, in one defining moment, prove they are every bit as worthy.

On Saturday, Tufts will travel to Amherst in an attempt to do just that.

For a rivalry that has defined the top of the NESCAC in recent years, the results have been strikingly one−sided. The Lord Jeffs have won eight straight games against the Jumbos by an average margin of more than 13 points, dating all the way back to the 2006−2007 season.

No member of the current Tufts roster, even fifth−year forward Kate Barnosky, has ever beaten Amherst. Nor has coach Carla Berube ever bested G.P. Gromacki, her counterpart on the Lord Jeffs sideline.

“Everyone on our team has gone 0−for−however many against Amherst,” junior guard Liz Moynihan said. “So clearly, there’s that sense of wanting to get out there and show them what we’re made of.”

During the streak, the Lord Jeffs have beaten the Jumbos in every way.

It started with an upset victory at Cousens on a buzzer−beating layup, a game that both teams entered undefeated and that paved the Lord Jeffs’ way to a regular−season conference title. They met again in the NESCAC title game, where Amherst led almost the entire way and survived a late Tufts surge to win the school’s first NESCAC Championship, a title that continues to elude the Jumbos.

The next year was more of the same: Another regular season victory for the Lord Jeffs followed by a rematch in the NESCAC semifinals. With less than a minute remaining, Amherst drained a three to break a 46−46 tie, propelling them towards a second straight conference title.

“They are very disciplined in everything they do,” said Barnosky, who was a freshman on that 2008−2009 team. “They never take a play off, or even part of a play off. They execute to a T, so you can never take any mental lapse.”

Recently, things haven’t gotten any better. In the 2009−2010 season, when Tufts ranked No. 10 in the nation, the then−highest mark in program history, hosted No. 1 Amherst with a chance to halt the Jeffs’ undefeated run. Instead, Amherst was able to turn around a six−point halftime deficit, scoring 43 second−half points and never trailing in the final 10 minutes.

2010−2011 was the ugliest game in the series, a 73−35 drubbing of a Tufts team that was without Colleen Hart (E’11), their star player at the time, who was sidelined with an injury.

Things did not get any better last year, when the Jumbos looked to snap the streak and send their graduating players out in style with a Senior Night victory over the Lord Jeffs. But a 21−2 run by Amherst quickly put an end to those hopes.

“Amherst is a very good team, to their credit,” Moynihan said. “I think in a couple of them it was just a matter of us going in there and they shell−shocked us. Especially our Senior Night last year, we went in there, and we went scoreless.”

Tufts hung around, outscoring Amherst the rest of the night, but the damage was already done.

“We dug ourselves a hole in the first five minutes, but the score the rest of the way was pretty close,” Barnosky said of the Senior Night game. “It was a little embarrassing on our home court, because we take pride in winning at home. It was just more fuel to the fire — we didn’t forget.”

Last season’s NESCAC Championship game, the most recent iteration of the rivalry, was eerily similar to the matchup three years earlier. Tufts’ vaunted defense, ranked fourth in the nation, held Amherst to 24 first−half points before allowing 41 in the second in what quickly became a rout.

“It definitely gets frustrating,” Moynihan said. “But they are just a really good team, and they don’t make many mistakes.

It’s not only that the Jumbos have lost all of these games, but how they’ve done it. The buzzer−beating layup in 2008 came from a sophomore that was far from the team’s star. The game−winning three−pointer in 2009 came from a freshman that was just 34 percent from beyond the arc for the year and 0−for−3 in the game up until that moment. During last season’s Senior Night first half rout, forward Lem Atanga McCormick hit two 3−pointers, banking at least one. She made just 20 all season.

“You can scout them, and you can learn their plays, but you never know what’s going to happen in any game,” Barnosky said. “Sometimes things just happen.”

This season has been perhaps the best in program history up to this point for Tufts. They are on a program−record 21−game winning streak to start the season, and own the best scoring defense in the nation. They have reached No. 5 in the poll and No. 4 in the NCAA poll, both program bests.

But the biggest hurdle arrives on Saturday, and fans of Div. III basketball across the nation are well aware. Though you can argue that the Jumbos have had the better season, they remain one spot behind the Lord Jeffs in both polls, a constant reminder of Amherst’s past superiority. That won’t change without a win on Saturday afternoon.

“All season, we’ve been hearing ‘you guys have been doing these great things,’ but we’re not satisfied, we’re not settling on anything, because we haven’t reached nearly the goals we’ve set for ourselves,” Moynihan said. “It’s about going in there and showing our conference we deserve to host the NESCAC tournament.”

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