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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, March 2, 2024

First-seeded Jumbos to begin search for second consecutive NESCAC title

Sophomore guard Josie Lee is one of many returning players from last year's NESCAC Championship team.

Last year proved to be a milestone season for coach Carla Berube's women's basketball team, as the Jumbos captured the first NESCAC championship -- after not dropping a single game to a conference opponent all season long -- in program history, subsequently advancing as far as the NCAA Championship Semifinal en route to a 30-3 record. Tufts knocked off Amherst, a team that had won the conference championship five of the previous six years and beaten the Jumbos twice over that span, in the NESCAC final by a decisive 62-46 margin. What's more, they did it in front of the home crowd at Cousens Gymnasium.

One year later, the No. 5 nationally ranked Tufts squad finds itself in exactly the same position, ready to defend home court advantage and make a run for a second championship in as many years.

"Just having that experience of winning that last year and being able to cut down the net. I mean that was one of the best feelings I had last year," sophomore center Michela North said of winning the NESCAC title last year. "I know just about the whole team that returned definitely wants that feeling again. That’s what we’re after. And I mean, postseason is like a whole new season so we have to really stay focused and get after it.”

After closing out the regular season at Cousens Gym with wins over Colby on Friday night and Bowdoin on Senior Day Saturday, Tufts has cemented its place as the No. 1 overall seed for the NESCAC tournament. They've now beaten the conference's second seed, No. 18 Bowdoin, and third seed, No. 12 Amherst, each by double-digit margins. The team is undefeated at home, where it will play all of its NESCAC tournament games should it advance to the final. The Jumbos have thus built some momentum headed into the most crucial part of the season with big wins of late.

"I think the Bowdoin game especially was definitely a confidence booster because we had beaten Amherst, and Bowdoin and Amherst are two of the other top teams in the NESCAC," North said. "And to see that we can go on runs against them, and be up by a lot, and keep a lead throughout the game is definitely going to help our confidence going into the playoffs. Knowing that we can beat the other top teams in the NESCAC is definitely helpful."

Before any talk of a repeat, though, the Jumbos are focused on handling their business one game at a time. And what better way to kick off their NESCAC journey than a matchup on Saturday with the NESCAC team that gave them the most trouble and took them down to the last minute of regulation during the regular season: the Hamilton Continentals. If not for a 3-pointer from sophomore guard Josie Lee in the final 30 seconds of regulation of their Feb. 6 matchup, the Jumbos would have been sent home from Clinton, N.Y. with their first NESCAC loss of the season. The shot, however, tied the game just before the end of regulation, and Tufts was able to control the final overtime period to escape unscathed. As fate would have it, they will face off once more in the first round of the NESCAC tournament. 

Although Hamilton enters the playoffs with the lowest seed in the NESCAC, they came the closest to spoiling an undefeated NESCAC regular record for Tufts. The Jumbos welcome the opportunity to play the Continentals at home and hope this time around,with some experience under their belts, they will be able to seize control.

"It lets us know that it’s gonna be a fight and yeah, they have some very good talent with [junior Sam] Graber and [first-year Lauren] Getman, and some really strong guard play," coach Berube said of having played such a close game with Hamilton the first time around. "We have to play them to the best of our ability and have a better defensive outing than we did out at Hamilton, because they’re a very good team as a whole as well as their parts. So it’s going to be a very important week of practice to prepare for them, and it’s good that it wasn’t that long ago that we played them, so it’s not like we’ve forgotten all about them. We’re excited for the opportunity to host them here and for a great showing."

"Honestly, I’m actually really happy that we get to play them again, because since that game did go into overtime we didn’t really feel like we deserved that win too much," North said. "And so I think getting another chance to play them, and to really play at our level this time -- and it’ll be at home, so we’ll have home-court advantage with our fans and I think it will be a lot better game for us hopefully."

This will be the first postseason meeting between Hamilton and Tufts, and it will be the second time that Hamilton has advanced to the championship quarterfinals. The stars of Hamilton include Graber, who leads the NESCAC with 17.4 points per game and sits at third in the conference for rebounding with 9.6 per game. Getman is second on the team with 9.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game.

The Jumbos, who lead the conference on defense allowing just 46.5 points per game, have some NESCAC leaders as well. North is first in the conference shooting 58.2 percent from the floor in 24 games played. Senior tri-captain guard Hannah Foley leads the conference in 3-point shooting, hitting 46.2 percent of her shots from beyond the arc. Senior tri-captain forward Hayley Kanner also leads the Jumbos in the front court, with 13.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game.

Another key statistic for this Tufts team comes in the form of experience. With the exception of first-year point guard Lauren Dillon, who has stepped up to replace the injured senior tri-captain Kelsey Morehead, the other four expected starters for Saturday's game -- Kanner, North, Foley and junior guard Emma Roberson -- all logged minutes in last year's conference championship game. Fresh off the program's first NESCAC title, this team knows what it takes to win big games.

Despite the talented veteran lineup, however, Tufts knows anything can happen in this tournament. To ensure success, the team must be prepared and focused.

"There’s quite a few of [the team members] that were here during the year that we lost in the first round, so I think that’s something that they can pull from that experience," Berube said. "And then also the experience of hosting the whole tournament last year is a great experience to have as well. It was awesome last year, but there are quite a few players that didn’t experience that. So we want to have that same feeling again. The crowds were awesome last year, and we’re looking forward to that again, but we’ve definitely got to take care of business on Saturday to host the semis and finals the following weekend."

Tufts will play visiting Hamilton on Saturday at 4 p.m. in Cousens Gym. If the Jumbos advance, they will host a semifinals matchup and potentially a finals matchup at home the following weekend.