When Senior Day weekend coincides with the prospects of a program wins record and a visit from the seven-time conference champions, it figures to be an eventful couple of days.
That's exactly what's ahead for the nationally ranked No. 21 women's basketball team, which will kick off its final weekend of regular-season action by hosting conference powerhouse Bowdoin at Cousens Gym tonight. A win this evening, coupled with a victory in tomorrow's regular-season finale against Colby, would guarantee the Jumbos no worse than a third seed and home court advantage for the first round of the NESCAC Tournament, which gets underway a week from tomorrow.
"There's a lot of motivation for us going into this weekend," coach Carla Berube said. "I don't think I'm going to be struggling to think of ways for us to get up for these games ... I'm excited to get in the gym and see just what we're made of."
Bowdoin and Tufts last met in last season's NESCAC championship game, in which the Polar Bears overcame a one-point halftime deficit and cruised to their seventh consecutive conference championship, 64-48. Bowdoin then went on to make another deep run in the NCAA Tournament, reaching its sixth straight Elite Eight.
But this year's Polar Bears squad bears little resemblance to the one the Jumbos saw nearly a year ago. Bowdoin graduated its all-time leading scorer in forward Eileen Flaherty, and a 5-4 start to its 2007-08 campaign had some thinking the Polar Bears would spend the season in rebuilding mode.
But with victories in 12 of its last 13 games, Bowdoin has quieted many of its critics and found its way back to its customary spot atop the NESCAC standings. The Jumbos expect to see nothing other than the same formidable Polar Bears squad that has dominated the conference in recent seasons.
"We know that you can never really write Bowdoin off," sophomore guard Vanessa Miller said. "They've won the NESCAC title for the past seven years, and I think they are driven by the fact that they don't want this to be the first year that they don't win the championship. We definitely aren't underestimating them."
"They're at the top of the NESCAC - there's no doubting that," Berube added. "Until someone knocks them off, they are the NESCAC champions. We are going to have to play very well to beat them."
Bowdoin hasn't necessarily put up gaudy numbers on its way to the top of the standings. As a team, the Polar Bears are sixth in the NESCAC in points per game, fourth in opponents' field goal percentage and seventh in rebounding.
"I don't think they've ever been a flashy team," Berube said. "I think they've been successful because they play very hard, execute very well, play very good defense and contest every shot. I don't think they've gotten away from who they are. They just didn't have very much experience going into the year, and they've gained that over the course of the season."
The game will mark the Jumbos' second attempt at securing their 20th victory of the year, a milestone that would break the 21-year-old program record for wins in a season. Tufts had an opportunity to set the mark last weekend at Williams, but the team suffered a 63-46 upset loss that was just its second setback of the season.
Adding to the hoopla of the weekend will be Saturday afternoon's contest against Colby, which will be Senior Day for the Jumbos. Tufts will honor its senior co-captains, Khalilah Ummah and Jenna Gomez, in a pregame ceremony before taking the court against an 8-13 Mules team that last beat the Jumbos on Jan. 14, 2005.
Regardless of what happens against Bowdoin, Tufts will be in a position where a win Saturday would go a long way toward securing a home game in the NESCAC Tournament, something the team has been striving for all season.
"It'd be huge, especially after seeing during the Amherst game [on Jan. 18] the kind of crowd we can draw," Miller said. "It's such a fun environment to play in, and knowing that we can do that again and that we can get the opportunity to play in front of that many people again is a huge motivator for us."