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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Thursday, February 22, 2024

After historic tournament run, Jumbos are set to play in Indianapolis for Div. III championship

The Tufts women's basketball team practices at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Sunday, April 3, preparing for the championship game on Monday.

The NCAA women's basketball championships this year provide an especially valuable opportunity to all of the teams that advanced to the Div. I, II and III semifinals and title games in Indianapolis.The commemoration of the 35th anniversary of these collegiate championships will include celebrations, the opportunity to meet and watch some of the country's biggest stars on the court and a chance to play for a national title on one of the biggest stages imaginable: the Bankers Life Fieldhouse, home to the Indiana Pacers of the NBA and the Indiana Fever of the WNBA.

Amidst the spectacles and festivities will also be fierce competition. Teams will be vying to reach the pinnacle of their respective divisions by bringing home a national championship. The Jumbos, for all of the incredible experience they will get off the court, are also on a mission with a single goal in mind.

"It's a special time, and it's a really incredible weekend that I'm just thrilled for my players to experience. We've told them a little bit about what's going to happen and what's going to unfold, but we're also there to win a basketball game," coach Carla Berube said. "So there's that focus that we need to keep throughout the weekend."

After a few weeks of rest and practice, Tufts will take on defending national champion Thomas More, to whom it lost in the Final Four last year, for the NCAA Div. III national championship tonight at 6 p.m. In the year that separates this season from last season, Thomas More has gone undefeated at 32-0 while the Jumbos sit at 28-3. The Saints average over 90 points per game (PPG), while the Jumbos allow just 44.8 PPG.

A championship of this nature, featuring two powerhouses dominant in their own respective ways, represents a clash of formidable offensive strength characteristic of Thomas More and Tufts' shutdown defense.

"It is kind of like defense versus offense, let's see who wins out," Berube said.

That's not to say either team really has a particularly weak spot. The Thomas More roster allows just over 50 PPG and averages over 13 takeaways. For Tufts, junior Michela North, a Women's Basketball Coaches Association All-American and Second Team All-American, and sophomore Melissa Baptista, have been pacing the Jumbos, averaging over 10 PPG each. Just as much as Tufts needs to stifle Thomas More's offense, they need to convert those stops into baskets on the other end.

"We also have to score the ball. We're not going to shut them out in the first quarter. I'm pretty sure of that," Berube said. "So we have to be able to score the basketball and make plays for each other. We have a Michela North that they don't have either, so we'll look for places where we think we can score the ball and we'll put it there, and hopefully the team makes the plays that we need to make."

One key for the Jumbos will be slowing down the Saints' leading scorer and three-time NCAA Div. III Player of the Year Sydney Moss. The senior averages 22.4 PPG and put up 39 against Amherst in the other Final Four matchup. The Jumbos have not really seen a scorer of this ability all season.

"Sydney Moss is playing at a high level," Berube said. "If you saw her in the Amherst game, I mean, she's able to just take over a game."

Because the Jumbos advanced all the way to the Final Four and got the matchup with the Saints last year, though, they will be well-equipped to handle both the national spotlight and their specific opponent.

"Most of the players that are playing now have played against Thomas More, so we have that experience from last year," Berube said. "I think that's even more important to have that in-game experience against a Thomas More team who is somewhat the same as last year."

As far as game plans go, although Tufts needs to adjust specifically for competition against such a well-rounded and multidimensional opponent like Thomas More, the team also wants to focus on the core values they have depended upon and worked at to get this far.

"I think we're going to stick to a lot of what we always do," sophomore point guard Lauren Dillon said. "We don't really change too much depending on who we're playing. Our defense is Tufts basketball, and we pretty much do the same thing every time. I think we know we have to have a huge defensive game, and I'm not sure that Thomas More has faced a defense like ours this whole season, which is one of our biggest assets."

Both Tufts and Thomas More have progressed and changed since the NCAA semifinals last year, meaning this game could look a lot different that the last time the Jumbos and Saints met. Coach Berube is proud of how the Jumbos have developed into a championship-caliber team this year.

"I think we're different, we don't have two 6 ft. 2 in. centers in the post [referring to North and last year's tri-captain Haley Kanner (LA' 15)]," she said. "We didn't have the Melissa Baptista that we have this year. We have a more experienced Lauren Dillon and a Michela North that's our go-to in the paint. And we've got a really great senior class, a bunch of leaders that are doing an unbelievable job this year leading our team off the court and on the court and making sure we're prepared day in, day out -- practice, games -- to be at our very best. It's hard to compare from one team to the next team, but I'm just really happy with what we've grown into this year."

One of the more interesting storylines of this championship season is the fact that on the year of the 35th anniversary, both Tufts and the University of Connecticut (UConn) have advanced to the Div. III and Div. I championships, respectively. Not only, then, is it a special time to be playing in any of the three divisions' national title games, but it's particularly exciting for Berube. While she is on the sidelines looking for her first national title, her former college coach, Geno Auriemma, and the Huskies will be aiming for a championship of their own in the same location over the course of the same time period.

"I mean it's my alma mater, so there's a lot of pride there, that they're there hopefully for an 11th championship. And that we're there, too, at the same pinnacle, but just at our level, at Div. III, is pretty special," Berube said of the coinciding championship runs for both Tufts and UConn. "I know coach [Auriemma] has said that he's going to try to get to [Tufts'] game, which is awesome too because he's never seen me coach."

Ultimately, coach Berube stressed how much this championship game means to her team, to Tufts athletics, to fans and friends of the team and to the program's members, past and present, who all worked so hard to make Tufts a perennial contender at that national level.

"A lot of hard work has gone into this. My players -- not just this year but years past -- have kind of built to this championship," she said. "It's thrilling for everyone involved that we're finally making it to this game. I'm proud of our alumni base. There's going be about 25 of them coming to the game [today] so I feel like this is for all of the Jumbos of the past to feel really excited about this game, and that these 14 players I have are very fortunate to be able to play in this."