On Feb. 3, the world tuned in to view a historic college basketball rivalry clash. Two conference foes, their campuses within driving distance, reignited a feud that had seen hundreds of memorable iterations. The home team, donning blue, packed the arena with loyal fans who anxiously awaited a season-defining matchup as the campaign’s crunch time neared.
I am not describing, as ESPN would have you believe, the Duke vs. North Carolina bout that took place in Chapel Hill. Instead, I am referring to the Tufts women’s basketball team’s encounter with the Bowdoin Polar Bears.
Before Bowdoin, the Jumbos’ weekend started against the Colby Mules on Feb. 2. The matchup’s history was lopsided, as the Jumbos had won 12 straight against the Mules. The Jumbos entered the game tired, their previous game being a 90–82. This was a triple-overtime loss to the Middlebury Panthers, their first triple-overtime contest since 1981–82.
The first quarter was tense, hallmarked by 10 turnovers and an endless flow of traveling violations. Nonetheless, by the period’s end, the score was level with forward Adaobi Nebuwa beating the buzzer for Colby to tie the game at 14–14.
Neither side would score until three minutes into the second quarter when guard Kate Olenik put the Mules in front. A minute later, the game came to a halt. Tufts junior guard Annika Decker, coming off a 24-point effort against Middlebury, fell to the ground in pain while driving to the hoop. The concerned Cousens crowd held its breath, and Decker was able to walk off the court with help from two of her coaches.
“Annika [Decker has] such a large role in our team. So, when she went down, that was very sad to see,” senior guard Samantha Sousa said. “Even if Annika is not on the court, she will have such a big presence off the court … so she will still have a big impact moving forward.”
Olenik retained the hot hand, depositing 9 points in the quarter. Senior forward Maggie Russell kept the Jumbos in contention, putting up 4 points, including two free throws with just four seconds remaining. At the half, it was anyone’s game, with the Mules holding a narrow 26–23 lead.
The Mules extended their lead at the dawn of the third quarter, with 2 points from Olenik and 5 from guard Lydia Mordarski giving them an 8-point advantage. Unfazed, Sousa knocked down back-to-back threes to bring the Jumbos within 4. The Mules continued to score, and free throws from sophomore guard Sophia Davis and junior guard Sofia Gonzalez were required to maintain the 4-point divide going into the fourth quarter.
The fourth quarter was like a play in three acts. In the first part, Mordarski, Olenik and guard Lauren Cho extended the Mules’ advantage to 9 points, 50–41. However, with just under six minutes remaining, a technical foul was assessed on Colby forward Amelia Hanscom. Russell was awarded two free throws and converted both. The Jumbos then scored 6 unopposed points, the last of which was initiated when senior forward Mallory Folliard blocked Cho’s shot. Russell threw the ricochet off of a Mule defender to ensure that the Jumbos retained possession before Gonzalez capped off the move with a nifty bank-shot jumper.
Down 50–49, the Jumbos could feel a win within their grasp. However, they would only score once the rest of the way, as the Mules went on a 12–1 run to cap off a 62–50 victory. Gonzalez led the Jumbos in points, putting up 14, including three triples. But, the team’s 25% field goal mark prevented them from claiming the win. Olenik posted 24 for the Mules, while Mordarski contributed 14 plus nine rebounds.
“We just didn’t really finish that great around the basket. I also don't think we shot very well from the free-throw line,” Sousa said. “When games get sped up, when games are closer, people are obviously more nervous. They’re kind of moving faster than they should have, and I think we just need to remember to take our time and … concentrate and focus on finishing the small baskets.”
Despite the disappointing outcome, Tufts’ attention immediately turned to the next day, when they would welcome Bowdoin, who was tied for first in the NESCAC, on Senior Day. Before the game, the team’s five seniors, Russell, Folliard, Sousa, guard Callie O’Brien and guard Hannah Kelly, were honored with their families. Cousens Gym was at maximum capacity, and the crowd’s atmosphere was electric, calamitous and contagious.
“The five of us, I feel like, have been through a lot of different things throughout the last four years, especially coming in with COVID, and just, we all pushed through, we all persevered and we did it together. And that makes it really special,” Sousa said. “It feels good to know that there's such a great support system at Tufts and [that] we've created such a great network of people over our time here to the point where the gym was packed to come watch our game, to come see us get honored.”
The Jumbos parlayed their fans’ support into an action-packed first quarter. Both teams were on the offensive as soon as they regained possession. The battle was tight, with Russell’s 8 points and Folliard’s 6 giving the Jumbos a 21–19 advantage as the buzzer sounded.
The second quarter was dominated by Bowdoin’s guard Sydney Jones. She scored a whopping 15 points in the quarter, as the Polar Bears exploded for 23. Five triples, two from Russell, two from sophomore guard Annie Aspesi and one from first-year guard Stella Galanes, kept the Jumbos within striking distance. At the half, Bowdoin led 42–38.
In the third, the Polar Bears began to pull away. The defining play of the quarter came with under two minutes remaining, when Bowdoin guard Carly Davey went behind her back to beat Galanes to the hoop before laying it in off the glass. Davey stayed in the play, stealing Davis’ inbound, laying it in and converting her free throw to complete a “5-point” play. The move encapsulated the Jumbos’ falloff in the second half and compounded the litany of costly turnovers.
The Polar Bears entered the fourth leading by 14, 62–48. Junior forward Mikayla Paquette’s smooth jumper yielded 6 points and spearheaded the Jumbos’ comeback attempt, but her efforts were to no avail. In the end, the Polar Bears romped to a 77–63 victory.
Jones totaled 20 points in addition to 8 rebounds, while Davey added 14 points. For the Jumbos, Russell posted 18 and Gonzalez 11. The most telling statistic was the team rebound total. The Polar Bears racked up 39, compared to just 21 from the Jumbos, yielding the Polar Bears 18 second-chance points.
“I think they kind of [pulled] away in the second half and really took advantage of our defensive lapses. … We could have maybe stayed in the game, but they had some pretty big threes and a couple of and ones that just kind of sent them forward with more of the momentum,” Sousa said.
Despite the weekend sweep and the loss of Decker for the foreseeable future, all is not lost for the Jumbos. The NESCAC’s top eight teams qualify for the conference’s championship tournament, and the Jumbos are currently nestled in eighth. Though last year’s formidable heights appear to be out of reach, there is still hope. To win it, you have to be in it, and, right now, the Jumbos are very much still in it.
“The end goal is to win the NESCAC Championship and there’s a lot of different paths to get to that end goal. You know, it doesn’t matter how many losses you have if you ultimately win at the end of it,” Sousa said. “Just because you lose doesn't mean you can’t ultimately win in the end.”