The best season in the history of the women's basketball team just got a whole lot sweeter.
Behind a suffocating effort on the defensive end, the nationally ranked No. 18 Jumbos trounced host Mount St. Mary 54-38 Saturday night in Newburgh, N.Y. to advance to the Sweet Sixteen of the Div. III NCAA Tournament. The win followed Tufts' 71-68 win over Wheaton in the tourney opener on Friday and continued the Jumbos' program-best season, which now stands at 25-3.
"I was a little bit speechless afterwards," coach Carla Berube said following Saturday's victory. "It was the best defensive basketball we've played all season, from top to bottom, from player A to player Z. I am just proud of our effort, proud of the way we came out, the way we sustained our composure, our intensity and our energy for the entire game. It was a fun game to coach and to be a part of."
Defense ruled the day in a game where no player from either side reached double figures in scoring. Mount St. Mary entered the contest with one of the nation's best defenses, having held its opponents to a Div. III-best 29.9 percent from the field. But Tufts beat the Blue Knights at their own game, limiting them to just 12 first-half points. Mount St. Mary finished with 38 points on the night, a whopping 33.5 fewer than its season average.
"We watched them play the night before, and we knew that they are a very good offensive team," sophomore guard Vanessa Miller said. "But we pressured the ball great - we were talking, and we communicated well. It was all the things we've been talking about the entire season coming together."
While the Jumbos stifled the Blue Knights' assault, they had trouble getting their own offensive game going, setting up a defensive stalemate through the first 18 minutes of the game. With two minutes remaining in the first half, both teams had combined for just 26 points. But a conventional three-point play from senior co-captain Jenna Gomez ignited a 6-0 Tufts run that closed the half and sent the team into the locker room with a 20-12 lead.
The Jumbos sustained that momentum into the second half. A Gomez jumper at the 16:03 mark put the Tufts lead in double digits, and a crucial three-pointer by junior guard Stacy Filocco 2:35 later put the game out of reach. As a whole, Tufts was far more efficient offensively in the second half, shooting 46.2 percent from the floor, compared to 25.0 percent in the first.
"I think the key was that we calmed down," Miller said. "In the first half, there were a lot of nerves because of the atmosphere of playing in the NCAA Tournament. I think people were very jumpy - we had eight turnovers at the half. We were playing hard, but there's not a lot you can do to fight nerves. But after that run we put together heading into halftime, we knew we had the momentum, and it just carried over."
One week after being held scoreless in the team's NESCAC title game loss to Amherst, the Jumbos' bench bounced back in a big way, tallying 19 points, including 13 in the second half. Miller led the way, tying for a game-high with nine points while also chipping in four rebounds and two assists. Filocco put together one of her best performances of the season, contributing six big points in eight minutes.
The across-the-board production was a welcome sign for Tufts, which had grown increasingly reliant on senior co-captain and NESCAC Player of the Year Khalilah Ummah over the last month. Coming into the game, Ummah had been the team's leading scorer in six of its previous seven contests and was virtually the lone source of offensive production in last Sunday's loss to Amherst. Against Mount St. Mary, however, nine different Jumbos contributed points, and four were within one field goal of reaching double figures.
"I think lately we've been relying too much on K," Berube said. "She did a great job today, but the balanced scoring was great to see. I'm proud of the contributions from everyone: Stacy off the bench, Vanessa off the bench. And I'm really pleased with the way Jenna bounced back from last weekend. So it was nice how we spread the ball around so well."
"We're all happy with this particular win because it really felt like a great team win," Miller added. "Everybody contributed, and everybody fit their roles perfectly. We know that we're a very deep team and that on any given day, we have many different players who can contribute a bunch of points. Today, everybody really did their part."
The victory came on the heels of a far less convincing showing Friday night, when regional foe Wheaton threatened Tufts with a quick exit from its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. The Lyons, whom the Jumbos dispatched 61-36 on Jan. 22, put up a much stronger fight this time around, thanks in part to near-flawless shooting from the free-throw line, where they converted on 17 of their 20 attempts.
Trailing by as many as 14 in the second half, Wheaton whittled the deficit down to four with 1:18 left to play. On Tufts' next trip down the floor, however, junior forward Katie Tausanovitch grabbed a pair of potentially game-saving offensive rebounds before notching a put-back layup that gave the Jumbos a six-point advantage. Miller and freshman point guard Colleen Hart then iced the victory with three clutch free throws in the final 30 seconds.
"I did think that the Wheaton that played us at their place during the year wasn't really Wheaton," Berube said. "They're a tough team. They made plays, they hit shots, and they showed a toughness about them when they were down in the second half. But we found a way to fight back when we needed to by hitting some big free throws down the stretch and making some big plays."
The weekend's wins earned the Jumbos a Sweet Sixteen showdown against nationally-ranked No. 5 Mary Washington, the first top-10 opponent Tufts has met this season. The 2005-06 men's squad is the only other basketball team in school history to have reached the Sweet Sixteen.