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

Tufts prepared for Sweet 16 matchup

Sophomore Josie Lee goes in for a layup in a first-round match-up against Pine Manor.
On Tuesday, Nov. 25, Tufts utilized its size advantage to defeat Eastern Connecticut State University (ECSU) 63-51 in Willimantic, Conn. It was a typical early-season, non-conference matchup between two teams with NCAA dreams. Over three-and-a-half months later, the two teams are set to meet again, this time in Cousens Gym for a Sweet 16 matchup in the NCAA Tournament.

Both teams look different from how they looked during that pre-Thanksgiving game. The Warriors entered the NCAA Tournament 20-8 after winning the Little East Conference. In the first round of NCAAs, they upset the Scranton University Royals -- the lone team to defeat the Jumbos this season -- before snapping the Baruch College Bobcats' 21-game winning streak in the second round.

Tufts, meanwhile, sports a starting lineup with two key changes. First-year point guard Lauren Dillon, who played just three minutes in that game, has taken over the reins from senior tri-captain Kelsey Morehead, who missed most of the season with a leg injury. Sophomore guard Josie Lee has filled in for senior tri-captain Hannah Foley, who was lost for the season after injuring her leg in the NESCAC semifinal match against Williams.

While there is some feeling of familiarity between these two foes, senior tri-captain Hayley Kanner acknowledges that November match-ups aren't as meaningful come March.

"It's really difficult to beat a team twice," she said. "They are much improved from the beginning of the season, but so are we."

Foley's loss has been palpable for TuftsA 44.4 percent 3-point shooter (the sixth-highest in the country), Foley's deep-range shooting helped space the floor for Kanner and sophomore center Michela North in the post, and her off-the-bounce playmaking ability added another wrinkle to the Jumbos' offense. St. John Fisher took advantage of her absence against Tufts in the Round of 32 by doubling down low and daring Tufts' outside shooters to fire away from 3-point range, where they shot only 29.6 percent in a 72-67 overtime victory.

"Part of our game is always to look inside the post, and that won't change," Kanner said. "That being said, Hannah's presence is missed, but we are fully confident with Kelsey coming back and hitting huge 3s."

Morehead's outside shooting saved the Jumbos' season against the St. John Fisher Cardinals, going 5-for-10 for 3-point range -- including a momentum-shifting step-back 3-pointer with 1:26 to play in regulation -- while the rest of the team was 3-for-17. Furthermore, her ability to play at the same time as Dillon has given Tufts an interesting two-point-guard offense that allows them to take on a dribble-drive structure when opponents are forced to chase after doubling the post.

With Foley out, this change to the offense has highlighted the Jumbos' willingness to adapt to their changing needs. Junior guard Emma Roberson and Lee have picked up more of the offensive burden, with Lee showing more confidence in her off-hand lefty push shot against defenders in the paint and Roberson continuing to do work on the offensive glass, grabbing six boards in the last game.

"Pretty much everyone has shifted roles depending on games and match-ups," Morehead said. "It's good that we have players that are versatile. It makes it tough for other teams and makes them have to stay on their toes."

The bulk of the offense will still center around the team's two leading scorers, North and Kanner.The Warriors are undersized down low, with neither of their starting forwards -- junior Jill Ritrosky and senior Shannon McCourt -- standing over six feet. The Tufts offense will look to once again run through Kanner and North, where Kanner's versatility from the elbow has complemented North's play on the block. North's ability to finish in traffic with either hand has made her a nightmare for opposing teams' bigs, and this high-low post game has flummoxed teams all season.

That’s been our bread and butter," Kanner, the NESCAC Player of the Year, said. "Michela’s a machine. She can catch everything and put it in. It’s really helpful having two players over six foot that can do damage in the paint."

This game will be predicated, however, on a battle between two of the best defenses in Div. III. Tufts sits at No. 1 in scoring defense, allowing 47.1 points per game, while ECSU's No. 5 scoring defense has allowed 49.3. Furthermore, the Warriors are one of the few teams that can match the Jumbos on the boards.

ECSU, however, eschews the outside jumper for points in the paint, a strategy that bodes well for Tufts, which always employs two effective shotblockers down low. While St. John Fisher gave the defense fits by stretching the floor with shooters and dragging Kanner and North out of the paint, ECSU will look to Ritrosky and McCourt on the block. Throughout the season, teams without shooters have attempted to throw the defense off by relying on pick-and-rolls, but North and Kanner have shown an adeptness at hedging and recovering, while Roberson, playing like one of the best perimeter defenders in Div. III, has shown an uncanny ability to fight through any screen thrown at her.

If Tufts pulls off the victory, they will most likely face FDU-Florham, the defending national champion who defeated Tufts in the Final Four last season.FDU-Florham has the fourth-best offense in the country, scoring 84.6 points a game, with five players averaging double-digits. A potential rematch would stand in the way of the Jumbos' second consecutive Final Four appearance.

For now, Tufts is geared up for a tough matchup with a team that mirrors its strengths. If last weekend's overtime win proved anything, it is that the journey back to the Final Four will be filled with tough battles against hungry teams.