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

Women's Basketball | Jumbos top UMW in Sweet Sixteen but fall short of Final Four berth

With a chance to send its record-breaking season to college basketball's biggest stage, the women's basketball team came up just a little bit short.

The Jumbos suffered a 55-49 loss to eventual national runner-up Messiah in the Div. III Elite Eight on March 15, ending the best season in school history at 26-4 and denying the team a berth to the Final Four. The loss came one night after Tufts earned the biggest win in program history, upsetting nationally-ranked No. 5 Mary Washington 48-45 in the Sweet Sixteen. But even that triumph couldn't lessen the Jumbos' frustration following a game against Messiah that was well within their reach.

"We came out of the weekend a little disappointed because we wanted to make it to the Final Four so badly, and it was right there in front of us," coach Carla Berube said. "I think the Messiah game was a game we could have won if we came out a little bit stronger in the first half. But they're a very, very tough team, and I think we walked off the court saying we gave it everything we had."

With the Falcons' All-American guard Nikki Lobach on the bench with two early fouls, Tufts had an opportunity to seize control in the first half. But the Jumbos had trouble generating any scoring against a Messiah defense that had surrendered just 50.4 points per game heading into the contest. Tufts could only muster a season-low 13 points on 26.3 percent shooting in the first half and dug itself an eight-point deficit heading into halftime.

"I think in the first half, for whatever reason, we played flustered, and we allowed them to take us out of our offense," junior guard Kim Moynihan said. "For some reason, it took us a while to get into the flow of things. I think we were all excited about it being the Elite Eight, and we almost tried to do too much."

After Messiah scored the first bucket of the second half, the Jumbos went on a 12-4 run - capped by back-to-back layups from junior forward Katie Tausanovitch - to inch within two. But Tufts would get no closer, as a balanced Falcons attack helped put the Jumbos away. Six different Messiah players contributed points during a 10:47 stretch in which the Falcons built an 11-point advantage with under five minutes remaining.

Messiah carried that lead into the 1:48 mark of the second half before Tufts began a furious comeback bid that nearly saved its season. After a pair of three-pointers by sophomore guard Vanessa Miller and Moynihan, a conventional three-point play by senior co-captain Khalilah Ummah cut the deficit to four with 31 seconds to go.

"It's a never-say-die attitude," Berube said. "We like to think that we're ballers, and a baller wouldn't just give up a game ... We wanted to give it everything we had to keep our season going. It shows a lot about our character that we were right there at the end."

"At no point in that game did we accept a loss," Moynihan added. "With two minutes left, I can remember Khalilah turning to me and saying, 'We got this. That's plenty of time.' The fight in our team this year was amazing, and it really showed in the last two minutes of that game when we wouldn't give up and tried to plow our way back into the game."

In the end, however, the Jumbos' effort wasn't enough. Lobach was clutch down the stretch, icing Messiah's second-ever Final Four appearance with three free throws and a game-ending layup. Though Tufts held Lobach to just 4-of-11 shooting from the field, the Falcon senior quad-captain still managed a game-high 19 points thanks to an 11-of-14 performance from the free throw line.

"She's an All-American for a reason," Berube said. "She's got very good body control, and she knows how to escape the help defense when it comes and how to get to the rim and make contact. The night before, she got to the free throw line 23 times. What can you do? We gave her what we could, and it just wasn't quite enough."

The Jumbos made their first Elite Eight appearance in school history after scoring a monumental Sweet Sixteen victory over Mary Washington on March 14. Having reached the Final Four last year and earned the preseason No. 1 ranking in the nation, the Eagles were a national powerhouse with a vast edge in experience over Tufts, which was in the midst of just its first ever NCAA Tournament appearance.

But the Jumbos rose to the occasion, weathering a first-half storm that saw their starting frontcourt tandem of Ummah and Tausanovitch on the bench in foul trouble for much of the period. Tufts' reserves provided a huge lift, combining for 11 first-half points and helping the Jumbos take a six-point lead into halftime.

"People stepped up in situations where we needed them to step up," Berube said. "I think [sophomore] Julia Baily did a phenomenal job when she came in there defensively, and [sophomore] Casey Sullivan and [junior] Stacy Filocco were two big sparks off the bench. We pieced it together and were able to get our big girls back in the second half."

But Mary Washington would not go quietly. Senior All-American center Liz Hickey, held to 1-of-6 shooting in the first half, exploded for eight points over the first 4:25 of the second to help the Eagles pull to a 31-31 tie.

After 11 minutes and five lead changes, the Eagles had a two-point cushion. But the Tufts bench delivered again. This time, Miller provided the spark, drilling a go-ahead three-pointer with 90 seconds remaining, stealing the ball from Hickey on Mary Washington's last possession and icing the game with two free throws.

The victory was the highlight of a season that has seen the Jumbos take their program to new heights, having obliterated the program's wins record and put themselves on the national map with a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. The success fostered a camaraderie the team will have trouble leaving behind.

"It definitely hurts to have your season come to an end because you've become so close to these girls," Moynihan said. "It's a sisterhood, as we like to call it. You see these girls practically everyday, and it's hard to let that go. But I don't think for a second we can hang our heads because we're all very proud of what we accomplished this year. We're all going to take this and hopefully use it as motivation for next year."