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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Jumbos' national title hopes end at Final Four once again

First-year guard Lauren Dillon dives for the ball in a second-round NCAA championship matchup with St. John Fisher.

Despite being the only team in the Div. III NCAA Championship semifinals with Final Four experience, Tufts returned just one player from its starting lineup a year ago — senior tri-captain forward Hayley Kanner. Due to multiple injuries over the course of the season, the Jumbos entered Friday’s matchup as the undisputed underdogs, facing off with the eventual Div. III champion, undefeated No. 1 seed Thomas More. Despite a strong rally at the end, Tufts was unable to pull off the upset, finally conceding 62-52.

The Jumbos found themselves on the wrong end of a scoring outburst to start the second half, trailing by 17 with just over 10 minutes left in the game. A late surge by the Jumbos made it a two-possession game with 1:22 to play. Despite getting some open looks from beyond the arc, the Jumbos were unable to pull out the win, bowing out from the tournament at the same stage they did last year.

“This team’s a fighting team, [and] there’s never been a moment where we were feeling bad for ourselves,” Kanner said. “Thomas More is an incredibly powerful offensive team. They’re averaging 80-plus points a game, and we held them to 60. Even when they were going on their runs, it was just our kind of team to fight back as best we can, and we brought it back within six. We fought, fought to the end.”

The next day, Tufts played its consolation match against Montclair State after the Red Hawks’ 70-58 loss to George Fox in the other semifinal. Kanner, the All-American, played the last game of her career in a gritty defensive battle against Montclair State, in which both teams were unable to garner any sort of offensive momentum in a 56-48 Montclair win. Senior tri-captain Kelsey Morehead tied for a team-high three assists and played 32 minutes  — a testament to her recovery from a knee injury sustained on Dec. 28 that caused her to miss most of the regular season.

“All my teammates and staff were so supportive of me. They wanted to take the season longer to get me back as soon as possible,” Morehead said. “A lot of players on the team have been dealing with injuries, and [I] see how hard they work in the training room hours ahead of practice. I was honestly just happy to be able to step back out on court, and I was really happy to be able to contribute in any way.”

Notably absent on Saturday was senior tri-captain Hannah Foley, whose brief return to the court in the semifinal the day before was met by a standing ovation from the small but dedicated crowd of Tufts supporters who had made the journey to Grand Rapids, Mich. With 5:35 left in the first half, Foley — who had missed the last five games after an ACL injury on Feb. 28 — went down grabbing her heavily braced knee, and had to be helped off the court by coach Carla Berube and the trainer, ending her Final Four early.

“The fact that [Hannah Foley] was on the court is straight guts,” Kanner said. “It was absolutely huge that she was able to come back, and she came back pretty seamlessly. When she fell down, I didn’t think twice about her performance. It was classic Hannah coming back and doing her thing. Unfortunately her knee gave out, but that tenacity and fire is second to none. You couldn’t have asked for a captain to show more leader[ship] or more heart.”

Against Montclair the game started slowly, with Tufts missing four of its first five shots to find itself behind 9-2 barely four minutes into the game after a 3-pointer from senior tri-captain forward Melissa Toble. Toble was the game’s top scorer with 20 of her team’s 56 points, despite shooting just 5-of-16 on the day. She stepped up at the free-throw line, though, hitting 9-of-12 foul shots. Toble produced a well-rounded effort for her team, recording 16 of the team’s 36 rebounds, along with five assists and a game-high five steals. Senior tri-captain guard Janitza Aquino scored 19 points, shooting 4-of-8 from beyond the arc, and led the Montclair assault from distance with the team shooting 40 percent to Tufts’ 18.8.

The Jumbos never led the game after scoring the first bucket, looking depleted after a tough loss to Thomas More the day before.

In that game the 38-0 Saints, who came in averaging 86 points per game, were the epitome of a great offensive unit — a natural foil to a Jumbos team leading the nation in scoring defense by holding opponents to 46.7 points per game. Junior guard Sydney Moss had been averaging 38 points per game in the NCAA tournament and was the nation’s leading scorer with 24.4 points a game.

The first half featured a back-and-forth battle between the two teams. Tufts looked to set the tone early, with a block by sophomore center Michela North on senior guard Sydni Wainscott on the first shot attempt of the game. After sophomore guard Josie Lee made the first basket of the game, junior forward Sam Cady’s shot was blocked again, this time by Kanner, who was there to grab the defensive rebound. All three of the Saints’ first attempts in the paint were thwarted by the strong front court of Kanner and North, forcing the Saints to try their luck from beyond the arc. Both teams tried to shake off nerves initially, and after a combined 10 misses on the game’s first 12 shots, the Jumbos took a 4-0 lead after a North bucket with 16:11 to go.  

However, the Jumbos’ defensive domination in the opening minutes was short-lived, and after allowing the Saints their first basket of the game — a jump shot by first-year point guard Abby Owings — the Saints got into their offensive rhythm, following up with another Owings 3-pointer. A turnover by Morehead then led to a quick bucket plus foul on the other end by junior forward Alexa Santamaria to give Thomas More its first lead of the game at 8-6.

The Tufts front court battled with personal fouls in the first half. With Tufts’ “twin towers” momentarily separated after Kanner went to the bench with an early foul, first-year forward Melissa Baptista was put into the game. After picking up her own offensive foul just over a minute after coming in, Baptista was pulled and replaced by Kanner. Another foul on Kanner just 14 seconds later gave her two fouls barely seven minutes into the 40-minute game and put her back on the bench for a second time.

The Saints capitalized on the smaller lineup, as Moss scored two quick baskets to give her team a 12-9 lead. Baptista was then sent back to the bench after another offensive foul, paving the way for junior forward Maura Folliard, who would have the hot hand for Tufts despite averaging under seven minutes a game on the season. Less than two minutes after checking into the game, Folliard hit her team’s first 3-pointer off an assist from first-year point guard Lauren Dillon to tie the game at 14 apiece. After Moss’ reply rimmed out, Folliard made a jump shot for Tufts to regain the lead 16-14.

The Jumbos and the Saints continued to trade baskets until 3:53 remained, when Moss would go on to score the last seven points of the half to put her team up 29-21 at the break. Entering the game with just three minutes to go before halftime, Moss grabbed her own rebound after getting double teamed and scored a layup. She sank two free throws and then finished a three-point play a minute later en route to a record-breaking day, shattering the NCAA Div. III Tournament scoring record.

"We don't see teams like Thomas More during the season, and we certainly don't see players like Sydney Moss during the season," Berube said. "She's probably going to be Div. III Player of the Year again, and that's for a reason. She's a complete player who can not only take over a game with her own offense, but she's a playmaker who's very unselfish. For the most part we did the best job we could on her."

Tufts started the second half by cutting into the lead after two North free throws, but a quick 3-pointer by Owings stretched the lead back to nine. Less than a minute later, Moss dropped in a layup to take the lead to 11, the first double-digit lead of the game. Two more points from North and a pair from Lee cut the lead to seven, but the Saints scored 10 unanswered points to take a 44-27 lead with 10:20 left in the game, putting the Jumbos' national title hopes on the ropes.

At this point Berube chose to go with her most experienced lineup, featuring the cornerstones of the team: Morehead and Kanner. A steal by Morehead at 9:48 led to a quick Kanner two, and after Owings' 3-pointer, the Jumbos went on a 9-0 run capped by five points from Lee to bring the team within eight with just over five minutes to play.

Moss tried to cut off the Jumbos' momentum by hitting a 3 of her own to bring the lead back to 11, and Thomas More called a timeout with 4:58 left on the clock. North returned to the game and scored a quick bucket off a set play. Junior guard Emma Roberson's free throw then cut the lead down to eight. First-year forward Nikki Kiernan's pair of free throws and senior guard Stefanie Krusling's 3-pointer put the Saints back up by 13, but the Jumbos responded with a layup from Lee and a 3-pointer from Morehead to pull back within eight. A pair of free throws from Roberson put her team within six with 1:22 left to play.

With the pressure firmly on the Saints, Moss turned the ball over off a Lee steal, but Lee had the ball stolen right back by junior guard Olivia Huber, who immediately scored on the other end. Both teams exchanged free throws as the clock winded down to 0:30, and four Jumbos had the chance to score from distance. Roberson, Lee, Baptista and Dillon each had 3-point looks but were unable to connect as the clock expired for a final score of 62-52.

"We started finally fighting back a couple of minutes too late, chipping away, and just didn't have enough time," Morehead said. "Obviously we wanted to finish a little better, but to extend our season into the last weekend, only four teams get to do that. There's probably only about 12 seniors that were there, [and] I'm really grateful we got to do that. For the underclassmen that got to experience this, I hope that there's this expectation, and there's something to keep striving for, year in and year out."

"We didn't reach our goal of winning the national championship, and that's what we set out to do, but we need to celebrate what we've done," Berube said. "Back-to-back NESCAC Championships, back-to-back Final Fours -- I'm proud of my team."