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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Women's basketball wins NESCAC Championship over undefeated Bowdoin

The women's basketball team poses for a photo after defeating Bowdoin 75–69 in the NESCAC Championship game on Feb. 24.

For the first time since the 2014–2015 season, the No. 6 ranked Jumbos (25–2) are once again NESCAC champions.

En route to the title, Tufts saw off the only two teams that they had lost to in the regular season. On Saturday, the Jumbos beat the No. 4 ranked Amherst College Mammoths (23–3) by one point, finding a miraculous last-second victory with a final score of 47–46. The Jumbos then followed up the stunning performance by upsetting the previously undefeated Bowdoin College Polar Bears (26–1) in their own gym, defeating the No. 1 team in the country by a final score of 75–69 to claim the crown of the top team in the NESCAC.

In what is certain to become two instant classics, the weekend was chock-full of clutch plays and nail-biting moments, as both games were held to extremely close scores as a result of the stingy defensive play that the NESCAC is notorious for.

Following a stunning win on Saturday against Amherst, Tufts returned to Morrell Gymnasium the following day, where they narrowly but securely defeated the Polar Bears — who had beaten the Jumbos by a score of 82–63 during the regular season — by a final score of 75–69 to take home the NESCAC championship title.

Going into Sunday’s championship game, the Jumbos' fate remained uncertain. After all, going into the first quarter, the Polar Bears were undefeated, outscoring their opponents by an average margin of 31 points. Right off the bat, though, the Jumbos showed their mettle. Although Bowdoin opened the game with a jump shot by senior guard and co-captain Abby Kelly, sophomore guard/forward Emily Briggs immediately responded with a successful drive to the basket to complete a layup that tied the game at 2–2. Less than four minutes later, she scored another layup off of a steal by junior guard/forward and co-captain Erica DeCandido, giving Tufts its first lead of the game with a score of 10–9.

The game continued to stay extremely close, as the score stayed within a five-point margin throughout the entirety of the first quarter. As a result of incredible ball movement and a variety of field goals from the paint, the Jumbos closed off the first quarter with Wadolowski making a layup to give the Jumbos a 23–19 lead.

Guard Janette Wadolowski, the hero in the previous night’s game against Amherst, was just one of three first-year Jumbo players who made a significant impact on the court this championship weekend, along with first-year guards Molly Ryan and Sofia Rosa. In the second quarter, it was Ryan — who has started in all 27 games of the season thus far — who kept the Jumbos scoring on pace to match the Polar Bears.

Throughout the second quarter, the Polar Bears displayed the refined shooting skills that have led to their success this season, going 6-for-10 on field goals. Junior guard Samantha Roy and Kelly led the charge for the Polar Bears, as the duo combined for 12 out of Bowdoin’s 14 total points on the quarter. The remaining two points of the quarter came from junior forward Maddie Hasson, who made a layup to give Bowdoin the lead with a score of 26–25. Ultimately, this lead would be the Polar Bears' last. In response to the high scoring, Ryan heated up from behind the arc by completing three 3-pointers in quick succession, keeping the Jumbos' hopes for the title alive by closing out the half with a score of 37–33 in the Jumbos’ favor.

With just a four-point lead coming out of halftime, the Jumbos were determined to contain the Polar Bears' deficit by fighting for dominance on the glass and matching Bowdoin’s scoring opportunities. The third quarter showed promise for the Polar Bears, as they were able to outscore the Jumbos 18–15, and went into the fourth quarter trailing the Jumbos 52–51.

Despite the tight score, the Jumbos remained unwilling to give up the lead they had set in the second quarter. What resulted was an offensive performance worthy of the highest praise from the Jumbos, who were led by their co-captains. DeCandido contributed 13 points by the start of the fourth quarter, handing the mantle over to senior guard and co-captain Jac Knapp who carried the team to victory. Knapp ensured the Jumbos were always in the lead, scoring an incredible 15 out of the Jumbo’s 23 total points in the fourth quarter.

In the battle against Bowdoin, Knapp also passed an outstanding milestone in the process of mercilessly fighting for the NESCAC championship title that had escaped her grasp during her tenure at Tufts.With just under nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Knapp made a huge 3-pointer off of an assist by DeCandido, putting the Jumbos up 60–51. However, unbeknownst to Knapp, the shot was not only her sole completed 3-pointer of the game but also her 1,000th point of her career. With the shot, Knapp solidified herself in the record books as one of only 15 women in program history to accomplish the feat.

“I wasn’t really sure how far I was away,” Knapp wrote in an email to the Daily. “I had no idea it had happened until Cailin [Harrington] told me during a free throw. It’s a cool accomplishment, but I’m way more excited about the NESCAC championship.”

The game went down to the wire as Bowdoin continuously pressed on the Jumbo defense. With just 29 seconds remaining in the game, DeCandido completed two free throws to put the Jumbos in a two-possession lead. However, almost instantly following the second made free throw, Bowdoin senior guard and co-captain Taylor Choate gained possession of the ball and sprinted coast to coast, immediately making a jumping layup to set the score to 71–69, a one-possession game in favor of Tufts.

For a moment, it seemed as though Bowdoin might get the chance to regain the lead they had lost in the second quarter. However, during the course of Choate’s reflexive play, her teammate Kelly fouled out in an attempt to preserve some clock for her team. Under the heckling of a home crowd, Knapp completed both of her attempted free throws, setting the score to 73–69 and all but sealing the Polar Bears' fate. Knapp closed out the scoring of the championship game with two more completed free throws, finalizing the score at 75–69 in favor of the Jumbos.

In the end, the completed free throws during the fourth quarter helped propel the Jumbos to NESCAC glory. In the fourth quarter, the Jumbos completed 12 out of their 13 attempted free throws for a staggering 92.3 percent. Knapp closed out her spectacular game with a team-high 25 points, followed by DeCandido, who scored 17.

The first step to the Jumbos’ NESCAC victory came as a result of their spectacular performance on Saturday. The Jumbos’ narrow victory over the Mammoths was characterized not only by incredible performances from each one of the players on the Jumbos but also by key clutch moments that propelled the team to victory.

The Amherst game was defined by a closely contested score that went back and forth throughout the entirety of the game. With only 24 seconds remaining in the final quarter, the Jumbos trailed the Mammoths 46–45 and Tufts coach Carla Berube took a timeout to plan the ensuing play. What followed may go down as one of the most legendary moments in program history: In a moment of perfect execution, Wadolowski scored the Jumbos’ final points of the game on a jump shot with only 1.8 seconds remaining on the clock. Wadolowski’s astonishing bucket sealed the Jumbo’s victory over Amherst by a score of 47–46 , sending Tufts to their sixth consecutive NESCAC championship appearance in a row.

Berube recounted the marvelous play execution in the last seconds of the game against Amherst, praising Wadolowki’s exceptional offensive talent.

“We wanted to get the ball into Janette’s [Wadolowski] hands,” Berube said. “Janette is very talented. Offensively, she can really create for herself, and that’s what she did. She found an opening and had the sense that the shot clock was running down. She had to get that shot off, and she did it, and we went crazy.”

This instantly unforgettable NESCAC semifinal victory against Amherst not only marked the smallest margin of victory for the Jumbos this season, but also marked the first time the Jumbos have beaten the Mammoths since Feb. 6, 2016. Additionally, the victory was supplemented by the fact that the Mammoths had defeated the Jumbos in the previous three NESCAC championship games.

Berube spoke about the elements that the team executed in their huge championship win, expressing her pride towards the hard work her players put in.

“I’m really, really proud of the way we played, we defended, we executed and how we stayed poised through the ups and downs of the game,” Berube said. “Both teams have some really good offensive players, and I thought, for the most part, we did a good job of neutralizing them and we came out with really big team victories.”

Berube also spoke about the team’s morale as they head into the upcoming Div. III NCAA championship tournament.

“Morale is pretty good. Yes, they’re the number one team, but we weren’t really talking about that. We just wanted to take the next step and get to the NESCAC championship and win the title. Bowdoin was the next team in that way.” Berube said. “To get that win, we feel great, and we should feel great going into the NCAA tournament.”

Later today, the Jumbos find out who they will face in the NCAA championship tournament. Regardless of who the Jumbos find in the playoffs, one thing is clear: This Jumbo team will stop at nothing to reach their ultimate goal — glory in the NCAA tournament.