An unblemished record, the best start in program history, and now, a win against a leading challenger for the NESCAC championship. With 12 out of 23 regular-season games already in the books, the women's basketball team has the look of a serious national contender.
Behind a career-high 18 points from freshman point guard Colleen Hart, the nationally-ranked No. 14 Jumbos passed their biggest test of the season Saturday, topping NESCAC foe Bates, 66-57, in a back-and-forth tilt at Cousens Gym. The game will not factor into conference records, however, and the pair will meet again on Jan. 26 for their actual NESCAC matchup.
The victory capped a perfect winter recess for Tufts and improved the team's record to 12-0.
"We're all really excited to have beaten a team of that caliber, especially because of what it means for the rest of NESCAC play," junior center Katie Tausanovitch said. "Bates is definitely one of the top teams in the NESCAC, so having a solid win against them bodes well for the rest of the season."
The Jumbos took control out of the gate, scoring the first 10 points of the game and opening up a 28-8 lead thanks to three field goals apiece from Hart, Tausanovitch and senior co-captain Jenna Gomez.
Meanwhile, the Bobcats' high-octane lineup, which featured two returning All-NESCAC players in junior forward Val Beckwith and senior guard Sarah Barton, as well as the 2005-06 NESCAC Player of the Year in senior center Meg Coffin, was limited to just 3-of-20 shooting over the first 11:54 of the first half.
"It was a good defensive effort," senior co-captain Khalilah Ummah said. "We were excited for this, and that was something that really helped us out ... Our intensity was up from the beginning, during warm-ups. Because of that, our defense was up and ready, and we were going hard the entire time."
But Tufts experienced a scoring drought of its own over the last 8:06 of the period, misfiring on all nine of its field goal attempts, committing six turnovers and failing to make a single trip to the free throw line. Bates took advantage and climbed back into the game with an 11-0 run to take just a nine-point deficit into halftime.
"We've struggled this season putting 40 minutes together, and I think that the Bates game was a really good example of that," Tausanovitch said. "Those first 12 minutes were some of the best basketball that Tufts has played. It showed us what we're capable of. It's not out of our reach to be playing 40 minutes of that basketball. We certainly controlled the tempo those first 12 minutes, but we really didn't keep that up throughout the entire game."
The Jumbos' lead shrank to seven early in the second half when Barton, who did not make a field goal in the first half, knocked down a three-pointer with 15:07 remaining. But Tufts regained command over the next 6:17, using a 14-3 run to build the lead back up to 18.
The Bobcats still had one last charge, using nearly flawless free throw shooting and a clutch three-pointer by Barton to pull within five with 40 seconds remaining. But Hart, shooting nearly 95 percent from the charity stripe this season, and Tausanovitch iced the victory by combining for six late free throws.
The game was a rematch of last season's conference semifinal, a 52-39 Tufts victory in which the Jumbos became only the fourth team in the history of the NESCAC Tournament to hold an opponent under 40 points. Saturday's victory was Tufts' third straight over the Bobcats, a team that has never finished lower than fourth in the NESCAC and that reached the conference championship every year from 2003-2006.
"I feel like we have similar players," Ummah said. "We have great post players, and they do, too. We have great guards who can shoot the three and can knock down perimeter shots, and they have them also. We've just matched up well with them in recent years."
The win put an exclamation point on an unbeaten winter break for the Jumbos, who also picked up victories over non-conference foes Fitchburg State and Emmanuel. The success was a far cry from Tufts' performance during last season's winter recess, in which the team lost four of its first five games after heading into the break with a 6-1 record.
"For every team, this time is one of the hardest times of the year, coming off of a rest and off of Christmas," Tausanovitch said. "We knew that this was one of our hardest weeks of the whole season, with three opponents that were all tremendous challenges ... I think that these three games have given us an idea of what we can do and what we still need to do. It was positive overall, very positive."