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

Jumbos look to use height advantage in NCAA Div. III Championship

Sophomore center Michela North will look to score over a small Pine Manor frontcourt.

Entering their fourth straight NCAA appearance, the Jumbos will be hosting the Pine Manor College Gators on Friday in the first round of the NCAA Div. III Championship. After a whirlwind of a weekend -- tinged with the loss of senior tri-captain Hannah Foley to injury on Saturday and the defense of the NESCAC Championship on Sunday -- the Jumbos have their sights set on success on a much larger stage.

"We've been looking forward to this [NCAA] game ever since we lost in the Final Four last year, and to have another run at it is just a great opportunity," sophomore center Michela North said. "I think the whole team is really excited to finally be in the playoffs again and [to] have the chance to go further than we did last year."

The Jumbos will face the 13-9 Gators, who are playing in their first-ever NCAA Tournament following a 65-54 win over Agnes Scott College in the Great South Athletic Conference (GSAC) final. Having been selected as a Regional host for the fourth straight year, Tufts will be looking to capitalize on its home court advantage against a team that has gone just 4-8 on the road this year.

Pine Manor averages an astounding 79.4 points a game, and junior co-captain guard Alexis Lee (averaging 15.7 points per game) leads an offense characterized by its well-balanced scoring, with four players averaging double-digit scoring of the season: sophomore forward Jayva Johnson (11.9), first-year forward Erica Jones (10.6) and sophomore co-captain guard Maria Vaughan (10.0), whose point contribution is secondary to her team-high 4.7 assists per game.

Despite the win against Agnes Scott in the GSAC final, Pine Manor was outrebounded 52-42. The team has struggled on defense, allowing 70.2 points per game and 40.9 rebounds per game. Its defensive struggle will likely continue against Tufts.

The Jumbos will be looking to its post players -- second team All-NESCAC selection North and senior tri-captain forward and NESCAC Player of the Year Hayley Kanner -- to take advantage of the size mismatch against Pine Manor.

The Gators boast a small lineup with no players listed above 5' 7" on their roster besides 6' 1" first-year forward Brittany DesRoche, who has averaged just seven minutes a game. Their starting lineup against the Jumbos will likely consist of Lee, Jones, Vaughan, senior forward Natasia Franklin (who was their top scorer with 17 points against Agnes Scott) and junior guard Sybil Lynch. The tallest member of the starting lineup -- Jones, who stands at 5' 7" -- will be faced with the tall task of guarding either North or Kanner, both of whom stand at 6' 2".

"We've definitely heard that they're a short team and that we'd have that [height] advantage," North said. "I'm excited [because] it's not something I've played against this year, most of the teams we've played against have at least a 5' 10" or 5' 11" girl that I'm guarding. Hayley and I are going to have to approach it a lot differently because we can't just push the post down the lane too much because they're going to be scrappy and they're going to run all around us so it's a different style of play that we're going to have to adjust to."

Tufts has also focused specifically on zone offenses and guarding against Pine Manor's fast breaks and strong perimeter shooting.

"Coach has said they play a lot of zone defense, so we’ve gone over our zone offenses a lot," junior guard Emma Roberson said. "We’ve worked on our fast break -- not many teams in the NESCAC test us, so it’s not something we work on a ton -- so especially today we focused on the fast break. Pine Manor [also have] deep range 3-point shooters, so [we're] looking to extend our defense out on the 3-point line."

Yet the Jumbos' 3-point game will be hurt by the loss of Foley, whose second team All-NESCAC selection this past week was tainted by her exit from the game in last Saturday's semifinal match against Williams.

"Obviously it’s been a really tough loss, Hannah did everything for us -- rebounding, scoring, playing defense. [She is] definitely a huge leader for us on the court, so losing her is pretty devastating," Roberson said. "But Hannah’s had the best attitude about it, she’s been so positive. She was loud before, but now I can hear her even more – she’s so enthusiastic, and it shows how strong of a leader she is and how great of a captain she is, really able to pump everyone up in this bad situation."

Yet the team has dealt with these setbacks before and has thrived without losing its step; it recovered from the injury senior tri-captain point guard Kelsey Morehead sustained in late December.

"Same kind of thing when Kelsey got hurt, people kind of stepped up and rallied around [it]," North said. "[The injury] kind of brought us together, and we realized that we still have all the talent that we need and we just need to utilize it as best we can."

The team's continued success in spite of injuries to its core group of seniors has been fueled in part by the consistent contributions of two first-years, point guard Lauren Dillon and forward Melissa Baptista.

"I’m really impressed with the first-years' play this year [because] I don’t think they expected coming in that they’d be forced to step up," Roberson said. "Lauren Dillon starting as point guard [and] coming in after Kelsey is not easy, [but] there was no let up. [Lauren and Melissa] haven’t been timid, which is usually pretty typical for [first-years], but they’ve been very confident -- which they should be, because they’re both great players."

With Pine Manor playing just two conference games -- against Salem in the GSAC tournament semifinal that they won 66-61, and the conference final -- it will be matched up against an experienced Tufts team ready to perform on the national level.

"Right now we’re playing for our season," Roberson said. "Before we knew we had another game, [but] now we’re playing to get to the next game, we’re playing for our lives."

With Tufts coming into the game as the heavy favorite, it will likely be looking beyond Pine Manor and will be awaiting the winner of the St. John Fisher College-Skidmore College matchup for Saturday's game. St. John Fisher returns to the NCAA after a nine-year drought in its 15th appearance after posting a commendable 21-6 record of the season, while Skidmore College earned its NCAA berth with a 17-10 season record and won the Liberty League Championship in double overtime.

As the Jumbos enter the period of the season where the competition heats up, coach Carla Berube's focus has shifted accordingly.

"Coach has been focusing on competition so that practices are harder than games," Roberson said. "When we go five-on-five everyone’s been really competitive so that when we get to game situations, everyone’s prepared for them."

Tufts takes on Pine Manor College today at Cousens Gymnasium at 7 p.m.