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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, May 25, 2024

History made as women’s basketball crowned NESCAC champions

The Tufts women's basketball team is pictured on Feb. 11.

A magical weekend at Cousens Gymnasium saw the Jumbos crowned NESCAC champions for the first time since 2019, adding a fourth title in conference history. An incredible defensive effort powered Tufts past both Middlebury and Trinity College, extending their overall record to 21–6 as they head into the NCAA tournament where they will host the United States Merchant Marine Academy on March 3.

The Jumbos’ historic weekend began with a semifinal clash against Middlebury College. A dominating first quarter set the tone for Tufts’ largest win margin this season, 74–39. Junior guard Callie O’Brien hit the ground running with 7 quick points as the Jumbos took a 21–5 lead into the second quarter. The scoreboard pressure mounted as sophomore guard Sofia Gonzalez drilled back-to-back 3-pointers early in the second quarter while junior forward Mallory Folliard contributed from the bench. Folliard put up an impressive 12 points and seven rebounds on the night, joining junior forward Maggie Russell and O’Brien with double-digit points.

Tufts’ 41 points in the second half, including 30 off the bench, marked the game as one of Tufts’ best NESCAC performances in recent years. O’Brien finished with 12 points and four assists while Russell registered 15 points and a game-high 14 rebounds. The Jumbos dominated the paint and second-chance points, comfortably outscoring the Panthers 36–22 and 10–6 respectively.

Gonzalez reflected on the win and the team’s mindset going into the semifinal.

“The Middlebury game was just another championship game, as coach calls it,” Gonzalez wrote in an email to the Daily. “And that’s exactly how we played - and the score especially showed that. I expected us to play our best, maybe not to that extent, but I think it was great for us because it was proof that if we play together, the outcome of the game will be successful.”

Unlike the 1-point thriller on Senior Day, the NESCAC final against Trinity was dominated by the No. 1 seed. Right from the tip-off, the Jumbos set the tone with two quick layups from Gonzalez and free throws from Russell. With 16 points and 14 rebounds, Russell led the scoring and rebound charts on the night. The pressure mounted as the Jumbos held the Bantams’ offense to just 13 in the opening quarter while continuing to score with important contributions from O’Brien and sophomore guard Annika Decker. Back-to-back 3-pointers from junior guard Hannah Kelly and Gonzalez gave the Jumbos a 19–13 lead going into the second quarter.

Tufts rode their early scoring momentum into the second quarter to put 15 on the board before the break while Trinity struggled offensively, putting up just 8 points. The Jumbos’ 5 points off the bench compared to the visitors’ 3 highlighted the team’s flexibility with scoring options, a regular theme throughout this championship-winning season. The first half built a perfect platform for the Jumbos, having established a 34–21 lead while the Bantams’ offensive anchor Reilly Campbell and forward Samantha Slofkiss picked up a pair of fouls.

Despite Trinity winning the third quarter 12–8, Tufts maintained its lead and went into the fourth quarter leading by 9 on the back of two layups from Russell and Kelly. Trinity shot 28.8% from the field as Tufts was able to shut down offensive outlets and force contested shots.

"We were just focused on not allowing each player to do what they like to do defensively," Russell wrote in an email to the Daily. "I think our communication on defense has allowed us to play fantastic team defense."

The Jumbos' tight defense was matched with an outstanding offensive performance from behind the arc. Three early 3-pointers in the fourth quarter from Gonzalez and Kelly killed off any hopes for a late Trinity comeback as Tufts ended the game with a comfortable 19-point margin. Gonzalez shot 3–5 from deep, her second-highest percentage this year and wrote about her shooting mentality.

“My mindset for open looks is honestly just to shoot them,” Gonzalez wrote. “If I’m open, I know my team and coach trust me to make them. I think I've grown a lot this year in developing my games in other areas, especially defensively, and that has propelled me to play well offensively as well. I will continue to expand my game to help lead the team to success.”

Russell wrote about the evolution of the team and emotions after the final buzzer sounded.

“It felt amazing. I am so proud of this team and how much we’ve grown together this season in order to win a NESCAC,” Russell wrote. “It means everything winning with your best friends. Each year each team brings something different to the table. This year we bring a lot of energy, desire to win, and just a love for playing the game with each other.”

Gonzalez also paid tribute to the Jumbos’ coaching staff, highlighting head coach Jill Pace, now NESCAC champion both as a player (with Bowdoin College in 2009) and coach.

“Coach Pace, Coach Sam Mancinelli, and Coach Vanese Barnes are … amazing coaches on and off the court,” Gonzalez wrote. “They know how much we care about the sport and each other and support all of us with everything we do. They are able to coach us in ways they know can elicit success from us. In my two years, I’ve learned, especially from Coach Pace, about the importance of sticking to your principles and never wavering them for success.”