With the right to host a NESCAC quarterfinal matchup and an undefeated home record on the line, the No. 4 women’s basketball team was in a must-win situation against No. 18 Bowdoin -- the only other unbeaten team in the conference -- on Saturday. An electrifying start to the second half, in which the Jumbos turned a 10-point halftime lead into a 21-point game within four minutes, sealed the runaway 66-55 victory.
“We’ve had a lot of games with Bowdoin in the past that we lost or won," senior tri-captain guard Hannah Foley said. "They’ve been really close so there’s a bit of a rivalry there.”
“There was a lot of energy in the gym, because it was the last [regular season] game against an undefeated NESCAC team and games with Bowdoin are always fun and energy-packed,” senior tri-captain Hayley Kanner said. “We both want to go up and down the court and I think it always ends up being a tight game. Those are the games that you’re thinking about in the preseason, and leading up to the game you’re thinking what are these big games going to feel like.”
Both teams' offenses started off slowly, with Bowdoin missing its first three shots and neither team being able to convert until Foley kicked off scoring two minutes into the game, with a deep three when the shot clock was down to five.
The Polar Bears' own No. 23, senior guard Sara Binkhorst, responded two minutes later with her first 3-pointer of the night. She was just getting started on a game-high 23 points on 7-of-12 shooting and a perfect 5-of-5 from beyond the arc. She added another game-high seven assists, standing in for sophomore point guard Marle Curle, whose playing time was limited because of early foul trouble.
“So No. 23 -- Sara Binkhorst -- is just a big threat from the three and she drives really hard,” Foley said. “She's a senior so I’ve played against her all four years and the a couple of the games that we’ve lost [to Bowdoin] she’s just had some really big shots. We knew [going into the game] that’s she’s a big-time player that’s going to hit those shots.”
A Tufts turnover from sophomore center Michela North gave the Polar Bears the ball back, which they converted into their first lead of the night, leading 8-5 with 15 minutes to play in the first half.
Tufts took a brief 18-14 lead with help from first-year Melissa Baptista’s strong play off the bench, but a potential Tufts run was halted by Binkhorst who made a jump shot and then assisted teammate junior forward Shannon Brady to tie the game at 18-18.
Then it was the Jumbos' turn to go to work, turning defensive stops into points on the other end. A block by Kanner at the 6:43 mark silenced the Bowdoin crowd, and her follow-up 3-pointer had the Tufts fans on their feet. The Jumbos scored 11 consecutive points over a nearly six-minute stretch. Bowdoin pulled within five with 1:45 left in the half off another Binkhorst 3-pointer, but a quick layup from Kanner off an assist from Foley and free throws from first-year point guard Lauren Dillon and Baptista extended the lead to 10 at halftime.
Defense was the key for the Jumbos, from the post defense of North and Kanner, to Dillon’s relentless pressure on Curle. A possession earlier in the game saw Curle nearly lose the ball twice en route to the team’s first shot clock violation. This clampdown from the Jumbos' defense plagued the Polar Bears all game, recording two shot clock violations in the first half alone, while shooting just 39.1 percent from the field in the first half.
Kanner picked up where she left off, scoring a quick layup to open the second half, and Tufts scored two more open baskets to take the lead to 16 before Bowdoin coach Adrienne Shibles called a timeout just 1:21 into the half.
“In a lot of games this year we play our best in the second half. I think we are in really good shape and when we run the ball a lot we can tire out the other team, especially if they don’t go very deep into their bench,” Foley said.
The Polar Bears scored quickly after the timeout but were unable to halt the Jumbos' offense that went on another 7-0 run fueled by a 3-pointer from Foley. Shibles burned a second timeout with 15:51 left in the game to try to slow the Tufts momentum, but her team was unable to pull closer than 15 until the two-minute mark, when Tufts had essentially sealed the victory and first-place in the conference.
“Putting some of their players into foul trouble, forcing them to sit on the bench longer than they would want definitely helped us,” Foley said. “I think we could have done better on the defensive end. We kind of let them back in it a little bit at the end, but we did a really good job on offense, executing, going for offensive rebounds and just being really aggressive.”
The game against Bowdoin also marked the last regular-season home game and senior night for four seniors; Foley, Kanner, senior tri-captain point guard Kelsey Morehead and senior forward Hannah Artner, who had her first career start.
“Our assistant coach Kate Barnosky was a senior our freshmen year, and it seems like just yesterday we were decorating the gym for her senior day,” Foley said. “Going into these last few games I’m really starting to think right before every game that this is one of my last few games and it makes me want to play that much harder. Everyone talks about senior year but it really takes you being on court on senior day to realize that we only have a few days left in those uniforms.”
Saturday saw Morehead warming up with the team after having been sidelined with a knee injury since winter break.
“[Kelsey’s] on the upswing,” Kanner said. "One of my favorite moments was watching the other team see Kelsey shooting around and you could tell that they were starting to get nervous and that’s what teams should expect. She’s getting better [and] she’s getting out on the court.”
The day before, the Tufts blew past Colby 64-45 at home, led by Dillon’s 13 points and strong rebounding from Tufts, who out-rebounded Colby 42-25.
As the womens basketball team’s regular season winds down to a close, its attention will be shifting to the NESCAC championship and its next opponent, eighth-seeded Hamilton.
“Every game in the NESCAC is a battle,” Foley said. “In the first round we’re going to be playing Hamilton, who we went into overtime with this year. It was our closest NESCAC game.”
“This part of the season is about fine-tuning everything,” Kanner said. “Coach has given us all the tools, we know exactly what we need to do and to execute. With that comes a lot of energy and a lot of buzz for each game, [and] to credit our fans it’s been an absolutely awesome experience playing at Cousens Gymnasium. We play our best basketball at home, and that gives us a lot of confidence for our upcoming games.”