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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Women's Basketball | Tufts beats Middlebury to book return trip to NESCAC semifinals

It wasn't always pretty, but the second-seeded women's basketball team took care of business Saturday afternoon, winning its NESCAC Tournament opener 71-60 against No. 7 Middlebury at Cousens Gym.

The victory earned the nationally ranked No. 15 Jumbos, now 22-2 on the season, a spot in next Saturday's conference semifinals, where they will take on the third-seeded Wesleyan Cardinals for the right to play in the NESCAC title game. The win did not come easily for Tufts, which found itself tied with Middlebury as late as the 17:29 mark of the second half before a 25-4 run put the Panthers away.

"We have to remember that every team is going to come out stronger in the playoffs," freshman point guard Colleen Hart said. "We just have to be ready for that. I thought we played a sloppy game, especially in the first half, but we had spurts that looked good, and we just need to do a better job of maintaining those."

Though they never trailed, the Jumbos had a difficult time putting the game out of reach, thanks in part to the lights-out shooting of Panthers junior guard Emily Johnson. With her team down 13 with 2:56 to go in the first half, Johnson notched the last five points of the period to bring Middlebury within a manageable eight points heading into halftime.

From there, the Panthers threatened to give Tufts a run for its money. Middlebury opened the second half with a 10-2 run, capped by a Johnson three-pointer, to tie the game at 38. But over the next 11:40, the Jumbos' defense clamped down, limiting the Panthers to just 2-of-16 shooting and forcing 10 turnovers.

Meanwhile, Tufts got into a rhythm on the offensive end, where it shot a blistering 60 percent from the floor in the second half. In a 4:30 stretch beginning with 9:14 left in the game, the Jumbos scored on eight consecutive trips down the court, turning a tenuous single-digit lead into a 20-point blowout.

"We executed a lot better," said coach Carla Berube, who picked up her 99th career victory on Saturday. "We got the ball to the post, which is where we're at our best, but then we also moved it around. When we have good ball movement, when we're making strong passes, when we're moving the defense, we know we can be successful offensively."

Limited to just six points in the teams' first meeting of the season - a 61-46 Tufts win on Feb. 8 - senior co-captain Khalilah Ummah put together a much stronger performance this time around, notching a career-high 22 points to go along with seven rebounds and four assists. The reigning NESCAC Player of the Week also tallied four blocks, tying the single-game NESCAC Tournament record set by fellow Jumbos Erin Buckley (LA '04) and Libby Park (LA '07).

Sophomore guard Vanessa Miller also contributed a career-high 10 points in 17 minutes off the bench, while junior guard Kim Moynihan chipped in with 11 points and four assists. Johnson paced all scorers with 23 points on 6-of-9 from three-point range.

For the third consecutive year, there were no upsets in the first round of the NESCAC Tournament, as the top four seeds in the conference - Amherst, Tufts, Wesleyan and Bowdoin - all advanced to next weekend's semifinal round at Amherst. The latter of next Saturday's semifinal doubleheader will pit the Jumbos against the Cardinals for the first time in the eight-year history of the conference tournament. On Feb. 2, the two teams met for a regular-season matchup in Middletown, Conn., where Tufts handed Wesleyan its first NESCAC loss, 66-52.

"We can't really look at the past and worry ourselves with how it was last time," Hart said. "We have to expect that they're going to be the same type of opponent that [Middlebury] was: gritty and determined to beat us. So we just have to look ahead and focus on playing our best."

The game will mark the Jumbos' second consecutive appearance in the conference semifinals. In the team's first-ever semifinal berth last season, Tufts scored a 52-39 victory over NESCAC heavyweight Bates before bowing out to six-time defending champion Bowdoin in the title game. While the Jumbos have the lofty goal of getting over the hump this time around, they are cognizant of how much they've already accomplished, especially for a program that has been this far only once before.

"I'm very proud," Berube said. "We don't take anything for granted; any win is a big win, especially in the NESCAC Tournament, where you just never know what can happen. Our goal now is to win the NESCAC championship, and we believe we have a program that can fight for that. In years past, we weren't ready, and so to be in that position now is definitely a great feeling."