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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, March 3, 2024

Jumbos open NESCAC tournament with big win at home in Morehead's return

In her first game back since Dec. 29, senior tri-captain guard Kelsey Morehead looked to be in old form with her shooting and hustle.

Just over two weeks after battling Hamilton down to the final minutes of regulation and escaping with a win in overtime, the No. 5 women's basketball team posted a definitive 64-43 win over the Continentals in the NESCAC quarterfinal matchup on Saturday. Hamilton, led by NESCAC leading scorer, junior forward Sam Graber, was stifled offensively, shooting just 13 of 43 from the field, as the Jumbos secured a spot in the NESCAC semifinals, which will take place at Cousens Gym next weekend.

Rather than a back-and-forth affair like Tufts' away game at Hamilton in early February, this time Tufts was able to make a statement from the outset about who would control the pace of the game. Overall, it was stalwart defense that both forced the Continentals into tough spots on offense and gave the Jumbos a lot of room to convert defensive stands into offensive chances.

"I mean it’s a lot of hard work in practice, and working on our defense, and like I said before, our defense at Hamilton [earlier in the season] was not up to par," coach Carla Berube said. "We needed a much better effort and we did that for the most part -- broke down for a little bit in the second half. They got some open looks and Sam Graber is a very talented player, and she went off there for a little while, but for the most part I was happy with our effort. I think our defense led to some easy scoring opportunities in the break. We found shooters, we found our post players. I thought we did a good job on the offensive boards in the first half. We built ourselves a nice lead, so, you know, I’d like to finish a little bit better, but we’ll work on that.”

Tufts started the game hot with sophomore center Michela North and senior tri-captain forward Hayley Kanner trading baskets in the paint to put the Tufts up 8-0 three minutes into the game, forcing Hamilton to spend its first timeout early on. The Jumbos held the Continentals scoreless until five minutes into the game, when a pair of free throws from Graber got the Continentals on the board.

Contributions off the bench from first-year forward Melissa Baptista, who hit a layup seconds after checking into the game, and sophomore Josie Lee, who added a 3-pointer, kept the Jumbos rolling. A layup from first-year point guard Lauren Dillon added an inside basket of her own, and by the 13:29 mark Hamilton burned another timeout.

Though the Jumbos' scoring output decelerated some over the next 10 minutes of play, by the 5:44 mark Tufts had built an 18-point lead -- and Hamilton had scored only six total points. The Continentals finished the first half shooting just 19 percent from the field, with Graber being held to just 1-7 shooting from the field, scoring four of her seven first-half points on free throws. By the end of the first stanza, the Jumbos had taken a 37-14 lead shooting nearly 50 percent from the floor and holding a 26-9 advantage in rebounding.

"After last game, we obviously wanted to come out a lot stronger than we did the first time we played them and kind of get a little bit of revenge I guess you could say, because it was such a close game," junior guard Emma Roberson said.

The biggest story from the first period of play came just about halfway through -- on a substitution. Senior tri-captain point guard Kelsey Morehead, who had not played in a game since Dec. 29, checked into the game and played her first minutes since winter break. Though she was outfitted with a knee brace, that seemed to be about the only noticeable difference in her presence on the court.

"We are so excited that she’s back ... she’s come back like she hasn’t been out for two months, you know she comes right back in and she’s Kelsey, making plays, making her shots and just controlling the floor," Roberson said.

Though she didn't register a stat during her first minutes back, Morehead checked back into the game with 1:29 left to play before halftime. With 50 seconds to play, she stepped up and fired a shot from beyond the arc, swishing the jumper and sending the crowd and her teammates into energetic applause.

"I mean she’s an excellent player, but also just having her on the court as a captain, just having her leadership and her presence on the court is really exciting for all of us," Roberson said. "And especially coming into the playoffs, Lauren has been playing a ton of minutes and she’s been doing an awesome job, but it’s not easy to play 40 minutes a game, so having the option of the two of them [is great] so that they’re both fresh off the bench."

Best of all, the Jumbos have two point guards -- Morehead and Dillon -- who have built up serious experience leading the Tufts attack. While Morehead has spent the majority of the season assisting and offering advice to Dillon from the sidelines, as she begins to log more minutes and get comfortable directing the offense, the duo can be effective working together on the court.

"It’s a great addition off the bench, the experience she has, and she’s just really smart with the ball," Berube said of Morehead. "And Lauren’s doing a great job as well, and they’re doing a good job communicating with each other and helping each other out and talking about what they see out there. It’s a good combination."

Tufts continued to control the pace of the game well into the second half, taking a 51-18 lead eight minutes into the second half on a layup from North. At this point, Hamilton had used five of its six timeouts and could not get things going on either end of the court.

But the Continentals slowly put a dent in the 33-point lead the Jumbos had built. In fact, in the next five minutes they went on a 11-0 run powered by four points from Graber and five points from first-year forward Lauren Getman, the team's second leading scorer. Though a 3-pointer from Dillon ended the run and kept the Tufts' lead at 25, Hamilton inched closer. Graber took over the game for Hamilton in the last seven and a half minutes, scoring 10 of the team's final 14 points. Ultimately, though, it was not enough to spur a comeback, as Tufts regained a 20-plus point lead to close out the game on a 3-pointer from junior guard Nicole Brooks with 1:25 to play.

Graber led the game with an impressive 23 points, while first-year guard Samantha Srinivasan was second on the team with six. North paced the Jumbos with a double-double of 12 points and 14 rebounds, while Kanner and Dillon chipped in 10 points apiece. Roberson finished with seven points and four rebounds, and Morehead scored six in her return on 2 of 2 shooting from beyond the arc.

The next challenge on the road to a second straight NESCAC championship will be a home matchup with Williams College on Saturday. The Jumbos had a similarly close game on the road against the Ephs on Feb. 7, just pulling away in the final minutes on clutch free-throw shooting to take a 54-50 win home. The team is excited to have the challenge of playing another tough opponent in Cousens Gym, where it is undefeated this season, and hopes to remain undefeated with a NESCAC championship game on Sunday at stake.

"I think this week is definitely kind of an eye-opener -- having those two close games with Hamilton and Williams -- just kind of knowing that this late in the season everyone is playing for their lives, it could be everyone’s last game," Roberson said. "So just showing up to practice, being ready to get better and work on our offense and our defense. And then also getting in the gym on our own, working on our own shot, our own individual skills so that we’ll be ready to play on Saturday and hopefully Sunday, too."