In a matter of just eight hours, the women's basketball team went from dwelling on a gut-wrenching loss to looking forward to a history-making opportunity.
After the Jumbos endured Sunday afternoon's 59-53 NESCAC title game loss to Amherst and missed out on a chance to earn the conference's automatic bid to the Div. III NCAA Tournament, the NCAA selection committee breathed new life into Tufts' season later that evening. The Jumbos were awarded one of 21 Pool C at-large bids, sending the team to the Big Dance for the first time in program history.
"Once it was official and we actually heard that we had gotten the bid and learned who we were playing, it felt great," junior guard Kim Moynihan said. "Everyone was really excited, and it's a testament to the hard work that we've put in thus far."
The selection was hardly a surprise, as Tufts - 23-3 against the nation's fifth toughest schedule - was believed to have locked up its bid well before Sunday's loss to Amherst. The Jumbos put together a perfect 14-0 record against a challenging out-of-conference schedule that included then-nationally-ranked No. 14 Brandeis, preseason MASCAC favorite Fitchburg State and a second game against NESCAC rival Bates.
The wins, coupled with Tufts' 7-2 conference record, earned the team the top spot in the first three Northeast regional rankings, cementing its status as a favorite for an NCAA bid regardless of what happened in Sunday's conference championship game. But that still didn't take away from the excitement of Sunday night's announcement.
"We knew we were getting a bid, so it wasn't surprising," coach Carla Berube said. "But no doubt, it definitely got exciting when we saw who we're playing against, where we're going, listening to the D3hoops.com webcast online. It's exciting to hear your name called. Now, we're going to put the NESCAC Tournament behind us, and given the way we've played after losses this season, we'll hopefully be able to do that in the NCAA Tournament."
This season's showing against out-of-conference foes was a stark contrast from last year, when Tufts managed just an 8-6 non-conference record. The Jumbos' mediocre play against non-conference opponents wound up bursting its NCAA bubble in 2007, even though, like this season, the team finished as the runner-up in the cutthroat NESCAC. Stepping up its play outside the conference made a significant difference in the team's ability to sway the selection committee this time around.
"After last year, we realized we didn't win the out-of-conference games we needed to in order to get to the tournament," Moynihan said. "This year we gave those games an extra importance, and we won some against pretty tough teams. That was definitely a big difference between last year and this year in terms of us getting the bid."
When the brackets were revealed yesterday morning, Tufts learned that it would take on NEWMAC champion Wheaton in first-round action on Friday. The Lyons are no strangers to the Jumbos, having appeared perennially on Tufts' regular-season schedule. When the teams met on Jan. 22 at Wheaton, the Jumbos scored a convincing 61-36 victory after holding the Lyons to just eight points in the second half. Still, Tufts isn't taking its opponent lightly.
"Wheaton's been playing very well towards the end of the season," Berube said. "They have some very good, experienced, veteran players. They're coached well. I think it's going to be a tough game. It'll be exciting to play Wheaton again. We've had some great games with them in the past few years, and we're really looking forward to it."
"It's comforting to know that we matched up well against this team early in the year," Moynihan added. "But it was so early on, and teams have had a lot of time to grow and develop. It's almost a new season. We have to treat this game as a completely different game than the one we had earlier."
Tufts and Wheaton are paired on the left side of the bracket with Albright and Mount St. Mary in a regional to be hosted by the 25-2 Blue Knights. The Jumbos are the only one of the four teams to currently appear in the national rankings and had a case for hosting the regional themselves. However, Cousens Gym is prohibited from hosting NCAA Tournament games because it is not a regulation-size facility, forcing the Jumbos to make the three-and-a-half-hour trek to Newburgh, N.Y.
In all, 12 teams from the Northeast region, including three from the NESCAC, earned bids to the NCAA Tournament. Other than Tufts and automatic-qualifier Amherst, Bowdoin will also be making an appearance in the Big Dance despite finishing fourth in the conference. The Polar Bears, who have reached at least the Elite Eight the past six seasons, were awarded a Pool C at-large bid and find themselves grouped in the regional on the right side of the bracket hosted by the Jeffs. The selections underscored the strength of the NESCAC, one of only five conferences in Div. III to receive at least two at-large bids.
"The NESCAC was a very strong conference this year, and the fact that three teams from the conference are going to the tournament just shows how difficult our strength of schedule was," Moynihan said. "It shows that what we did by making the championship game of such a strong conference was a great accomplishment."