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

Jumbos put together another historic run, still search for national title

Senior tri-captain Kelsey Morehead, who battled back from an injury to help push the Jumbos to the NCAA semifinals, goes in for a layup in Tufts' first-round NCAA tournament matchup with Pine Manor College on Mar. 6.

After a breakthrough season in 2013-14, the Tufts women's basketball team was back this year with its sights set not only on repeating last season's success, but on taking it a step further: to the program's first national championship. The Jumbos hit the mark in many respects, winning a second consecutive NESCAC championship, going undefeated at home and advancing through the NCAA tournament to the semifinals once again. Like last year, however, they fell just short of the title game with losses in the Final Four and the third-place game, finishing the year as the fourth-best team in the country.

The results of this year, impressive by any measure of success, leave a mixed impression on the Jumbos, however, who are searching for a breakthrough that would ideally leave them hosting the NCAA Div. III championship trophy at the end of the season.

"I think it was kind of disappointing," junior Emma Roberson said. "I think last year it was more exciting just to get that far to the Final Four. And this year, getting back, we were more focused on trying to come back with a win. So definitely a lot more disappointing I would say, but having gone back is a great accomplishment. It just kind of shows how hard everyone worked in the offseason from last year to this year and how everyone improved. So definitely a season to be proud of, even though we didn’t come home with the win.”

Tufts finished the season with a 30-3 record, matching the program's single-season record for victories and boasting the nation's top-ranked scoring defense, allowing an average of 47.5 points per game. The Jumbos had standout performances from a number of players, including senior tri-captain Hannah Foley's 44 percent 3-point percentage, good for sixth in the country, and sophomore Michela North's 16 double-doubles on the season, just four short of the top mark in the nation.

In the past two years, the Jumbos have solidified their presence as a contender for the national championship. The growth and progress have generated a lot of memorable moments in the process.

“Despite the loss at the Final Four, I think the whole journey – hosting all the NCAA games again – was just a great experience, and having that home-court advantage and being able to have all of our fans come out and watch again was probably the best part of the season," North said. "I know the whole team loves playing at home and feeding off of that energy, so I think that was definitely a great part of it. Just overall a really successful season again, and as a sophomore my record is 60-6, so I can’t be ashamed of that.”

Within the NESCAC, Tufts finished at an undefeated 10-0 for the second year in a row. North held the league's highest field-goal percentage, shooting 57.9 percent from the floor, and was fourth in the conference with 9.3 rebounds per game. Senior tri-captain Hayley Kanner finished second in the conference with 2.5 blocks per game, and North was right behind her in third with 2.1 per game.

Roberson finished eighth in the conference in steals with 1.5 per game, a credit to her role as one of the team's shutdown defenders, and first-year Lauren Dillon capped her impressive rookie campaign with a fourth-place ranking in the NESCAC for assists with 3.2 per game.

Beyond all of the numbers, though, what made this season most notable for the Jumbos was their ability to play at such a high level despite facing adversity in the form of injuries throughout the year. What really proved Tufts to be an elite team was its ability to step up when players went down.

"Losing [senior tri-captain] Kelsey [Morehead] in the middle of the season – I think if you asked us at the beginning of the year if we could win all of our games without Kelsey, because she’s such a huge part of the team, I think people would have been not sure if we would have been able to do it," Roberson said. "It was definitely difficult. So Lauren Dillon being able to step into the point guard role, and the other [first-years] and younger players stepping up, was huge during the season. And then obviously it was a tough loss with Hannah [Foley]. Again, I think same thing, people just use that as motivation. It’s a huge setback, not having Hannah. She rebounds, she plays defense, she scores, she does a lot of everything on the court. And I think people kind of use that as motivation -- wanting to play for her, and playing a little bit harder -- which definitely helped us in the NCAA tournament run to kind of pull through those games for her.”

Morehead, who had not played a game since the end of December before returning in the NESCAC tournament, proved to be a major contributor for the team down the stretch, most notably in her 19-point performance in an overtime battle with St. John Fisher in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Her 5-of-10 shooting from beyond the arc led Tufts in a comeback victory to keep the season alive.

Foley, who went down in the NESCAC semifinals with a knee injury, was seemingly finished with her collegiate career after sustaining an injury so late in the season. However, she fought back to enter the game during the NCAA semifinals against Thomas More. Although she was only able to play four minutes in the game before the injury forced her to the sideline, the fact that she was able to suit up and get on the floor at all is a testament to her perseverance.

The team's resilience as it banded together and continued to grind out wins when players were injured, as well as the injured players' toughness to get back out on the court, shows how much the team members wanted to fight for each other to be successful.

"I think it just takes a lot of heart, especially because the people who had injuries really battled back and came back to play," North said. "I mean, Kelsey with her injury in December, no one really knew how long it would take for her to get back and how she would do coming back. She worked so hard everyday to get better and to heal her knee, and she came back like nothing even happened. And then with Hannah’s injury, I mean everyone just thought she was done since it was the end of the season and we didn’t know how much longer we had anyway. The whole team fought to get her back to the Final Four because we knew if we could get back there, there was a slight chance that she could play. We just battled and once we got there she just showed true grit and true heart. To get back on that floor with a torn ACL, that’s just really scary. And for her to do that and show our team how much she cared was really meaningful."

The Jumbos picked up a multitude of postseason honors as well. Kanner led the team with NESCAC Player of the Year honors, Northeast Region Player of the Year honors and Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) Div. III All-American honors. North scored All-NESCAC second team honors, All-Northeast Region fourth team accolades and All-American honorable mention. Foley was picked for the All-NESCAC second team, and coach Carla Berube was named NESCAC Coach of the Year for the fifth time. Berube also was the Northeast Region Coach of the Year and was one of ten finalists named for the Div. III National Coach of the Year award.

While Tufts can enjoy the titles and awards that came with such a successful season for the time being, there is no doubt that the Jumbos are looking ahead to the chance to push past the NCAA semifinals next season. They will sustain some heavy losses as four seniors who showed strong leadership -- Kanner, Morehead, Foley and Hannah Artner -- graduate, but because so many younger players had to step up and take over en route to the Final Four, there should be plenty of experience on which the Jumbos can build a strong 2015-16 campaign.

"I know we’re all excited to even start playing again," North said. "[Tuesday] was like our first official day off, and we don’t really know what to do with ourselves. But, yeah, by the end of the season, four of the starting five were not seniors, so we’re returning four of those. And so I think next year we will still have a lot of experience, and yeah we’re losing a lot of talent through the three senior captains and their leadership, but I think we still have the potential to be a really strong team next year, especially in the NESCAC. And our goals will never really change, we still want to win that national championship and get back to the Final Four for a third straight year. Having these four losses at the Final Four now will just keep adding more fuel to the fire. We’ll just want to work that much harder to make sure we get that win there next year.”