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

Tufts captures second consecutive NESCAC title at Cousens Gym

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First-year guard Lauren Dillon crosses over a defender in the NESCAC Championship. After defeating Bowdoin, the Jumbos advance to the NCAA Div. III tournament.

This time last year, the women's basketball team cut down the nets in Cousens Gym after winning the first NESCAC championship in the program's history. This year's team had its sights set on a repeat with most of its integral players still around and hungry for another title. After earning the tournament's No. 1 seed for the second year in a row, defending home court and battling through injuries, the Jumbos are once again conference champions.

"I couldn’t be prouder," coach Carla Berube said. "I’m excited for this championship like I was last year. It’s a new team, there [are] new faces, so I’m really excited for them all."

This year's finale was a showdown between the conference's top two seeds: the No. 1 Tufts Jumbos and the No. 2 Bowdoin Polar Bears.The two teams had played just about two weeks ago -- Bowdoin visited Cousens Gym in a battle between the NESCAC's best talent. The two teams were battling for the No. 1 seed in the conference then. On Sunday, however, the stakes were higher, as the NESCAC title carried an automatic berth into the NCAA Div. III tournament.

Just as they did against Bowdoin on Feb. 14, Tufts handled its business in the championship, pulling away from Bowdoin in the second half for a 68-52 victory. For many of the team's players, this was their second time cutting down the nets in Cousens Gym. The Jumbos' discipline, depth and talent have kept them at the top of the conference for two years in a row.

"There’s a toughness, you know, that we come to play with day-in and day-out in practice; in games you see it," Berube said. "And there was a resiliency, with [senior tri-captain] Kelsey [Morehead] going out when she did and then with [senior tri-captain] Hannah [Foley]. People are just going to step up and do their jobs, and we had huge contributions from [junior] Emma Roberson and [sophomore] Josie Lee, and some people off the bench this weekend with [junior] Michelle Wu and [junior] Maura [Folliard]. And our bigs were big and made some big plays down the stretch and [senior tri-captain] Hayley Kanner is gonna put us on her back, and you know, that’s what an all-American does."

Though the Jumbos came out of championship weekend victorious, they suffered a blow on Saturday in the semifinals matchup with Williams. As coach Berube alluded, guard Hannah Foley,the NESCAC runner up in 3-point percentage and Tufts' third-leading scorer, was injured.

With just over three minutes to play before the end of the first half, Foley hit a running layup from the left side of the basket, but then came down awkwardly on her right leg, grabbing toward her knee and yelling in pain. After several minutes of evaluation, she received a leg brace and crutches and was able to walk off the court under her own power.

Foley, however, did not return to the game and did not suit up Sunday. Her status is unknown in terms of how long the injury will keep her sidelined. Though the Jumbos are a deep team with players experienced enough to step up, the loss of one of their top scorers, rebounders and defensive specialists will prove difficult to overcome in the NCAA tournament.

"Hannah's a top player on the court ... but she's also an incredible leader off the court. She's a voice that you can hear at every single one of our practices, and at games," Kanner said.  "She really does the little things very well. So in that sense she's gonna be missed just as much as what she's producing on the court. And at the end of the day, there's nothing that can be done. It's a very unfortunate injury and she's gonna rehab as best she can, but it's just something that we can't help. It's something that we tried to put out of our minds in the Williams game and hope for the best, and then we'll regroup and find out what the doctor says another time."

Tufts has played the majority of the season without another of its top players -- Morehead. The team is confident in its ability to come together and make the necessary contributions to make up for the loss of one of its star players.

“Everybody just needs to rise up, and you know fill in, which is hard because Hannah Foley kind of does it all," Berube said. "But we have the personnel to do that, and Hannah [has] made people better every single day. So it’s a challenge, but we’ll be ready for it.”

In the conference championship, both the Polar Bears and Jumbos struggled on offense in the first half. The two sides had over double digit turnovers, with Tufts conceding 11 giveaways and Bowdoin losing the ball 10 times.

Lee, who filled in for Foley in the starting lineup at guard, made her presence known from the start, scoring the game's first points and then hitting a 3-pointer two and a half minutes in.

Overall, the first half was characterized by gritty defense and the inability of either team to consistently control the momentum. For nearly six minutes in the middle of the half, neither team was able to convert a basket. Tufts took a six-point lead on a layup from Morehead in the final seconds.

Kanner kicked off the second half with an and-one layup to boost the Jumbos' morale. Though Bowdoin answered back and cut Tufts' lead to just five, Tufts' strong outside shooting helped it slowly pull away. Morehead hit a shot from beyond the arc at 14:02 mark, and Kanner followed it up with a 3-pointer of her own with 12:13 left to play to push Tufts' lead to 10.

Just over halfway through the final half, the Jumbos had taken a 14-point lead on a layup from Roberson and a pair of free throws from sophomore center Michela North. Despite pushes from the Polar Bears, the Jumbos effectively held the lead as Roberson took over on offense. She hit a layup and then a 3-pointer with 4:42 left to keep the Jumbos' lead at 15. From here, the Jumbos ran out the clock with strong offensive rebounding and consistent free throw shooting. When the buzzer finally sounded, the Jumbos had outlasted all competition the NESCAC could throw at them and captured the conference's top prize.

"Yeah, it felt incredible last year, and it feels even more incredible this year," Kanner said. "I thought we had something to defend this year, and the fact that we’ve won two years in a row speaks to it not being a fluke. So I think that this year was a great year in proving that we’re still that great team that made that great run and there’s a lot more left to this season.”

Roberson finished with a game-high 16 points, while Lee scored a career-high 12 points, adding six rebounds, five assists and three steals.North and Kanner also scored in the double digits with 14 and 12 points apiece.Junior Shannon Brady of Bowdoin led the Polar Bears with 15 points and 12 rebounds, while sophomore point guard Marie Curle, who tore apart three-seed Amherst with 19 points and 11 rebounds the day before, was held in check by Morehead and first-year guard Lauren Dillon. Bowdoin out-rebounded Tufts 36-29, though the Jumbos held a 52.3-34.4 percent advantage in shooting.

On Saturday, Tufts battled past a Williams team that played it tough for the second time this season.The Jumbos squeaked out a 54-50 win on the road at Williamstown earlier this year, and the NESCAC semifinal matchup at home against the Ephs came no easier for the home team. Once again, the Jumbos had to match up with tough individual talent, as the Ephs' senior guard Ellen Cook kept them in the game until the final minutes.

The game started slowly for both teams on offense, with a back-and-forth affair leading to just a 13-8 lead for Tufts 10 minutes into the first stanza. The Jumbos were relatively stifled down low for much of the first half. North and Kanner did not enjoy the same freedom in the paint, as Williams' height and defensive strategy made what are usually easy layups difficult to convert for the Jumbos' front court.

Williams was able to stick around, and by the 6:35 mark a 3-pointer from sophomore guard Devon Caveney knotted the game at 16-16. The Jumbos' lead hovered around four points for the remainder of the first half while the Jumbos and Ephs traded layups and jump shots going into the intermission.

Despite a surge from Cook and the Ephs, the Jumbos held on for the semifinals win led by Kanner's game-high 20 points and a 52-39 advantage in rebounding.Cook finished with 18 points, 15 of which she scored in the second half, and the Jumbos held an 18-1 advantage in points off the bench.

With the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, it is likely Tufts will host at least one game at Cousens Gym next weekend in the early rounds of national play. The Jumbos will find out tomorrow who they will match up with first in their fourth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. Regardless of the opponent, however, Tufts has the experience with postseason play that could help carry the team deep into the tournament just one year after advancing to the Final Four.

“That experience is invaluable," Kanner said. "We’re gonna come into situations that we’re used to and there’s a strong group of girls that are coming back from last season that know exactly what to expect and are going to do a great job letting the newcomers know what this time is all about and how it’s a survive-and-advance situation. I really think we’re going to put our best foot forward to advance.”