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

Women’s basketball takes down Williams, narrowly loses to Middlebury in thrilling doubleheader

The road trip, which saw the program’s first triple-overtime game in over 40 years, was a reminder of how fun the game can be.

Annika Decker13.jpg

Annika Decker is pictured in the Jan. 12 game against Amherst College.

Typically, a two-game weekend for the Tufts women’s basketball team features 80 minutes of gameplay. However, to the delight of basketball fanatics, the Jumbos’ slate this past weekend lasted 95 minutes, thanks to a triple-overtime thriller against the Middlebury College Panthers and a nailbiter against the Williams College Ephs. Though the results were mixed, the Jumbos’ weekend was undoubtedly action-packed.

Entering their matchup on Friday, both the Jumbos and the Ephs needed a positive result. The Jumbos had lost three of their previous four games, while the Ephs had picked up just one NESCAC win, 80–73 over Colby on Jan. 12. 

The first quarter was evenly matched and concluded with the two sides knotted at 15 points. The Jumbos’ only scorers were senior forward Maggie Russell and sophomore guard Annie Aspesi. The duo also dominated the boards, with Russell garnering five first-quarter rebounds to go along with Aspesi’s four. The Ephs were led by guard Ellie Tounkara, whose team-high 6 points were highlighted by a successful 3-pointer.

In the second quarter, the Jumbos began to pull away. In the final eight minutes of the quarter, they outscored the Ephs 11–2, giving them a substantial 31–21 halftime lead. Senior guard Samantha Sousa took charge, leading the Jumbos with 5 points in the period, including a triple that extended their lead to 9. The Ephs were held to a 27.3% field goal percentage in the period, thanks to the Jumbos’ stellar defense that yielded three steals.

Following halftime, the Ephs had the hot hand. They outscored the Jumbos 8–2 through the first four minutes and 10 seconds, spearheaded by 4 points from guard/forward Arianna Gerig, making it a 33–29 contest. 9 points apiece were scored over the final six minutes, capped by Ephs’ first-year guard/forward Tatum Leuenberger’s 3-pointer, setting up a 42–38 nailbiter. Russell led all scorers in the period with 9 points, while forward Mairi Smith chipped in with 4 points, a block and a steal for the Ephs.

Senior guard Callie O’Brien began the final frame with a triple for the Jumbos, bringing their lead to 7. Russell deposited the Jumbos’ next 6 points. Halfway through the fourth, the Jumbos led 53–45. Nonetheless, the Ephs came roaring back, knotting the game at 53–53 with just over three minutes remaining.

From there, the two traded blows, with Sousa and Gerig each scoring to level the bout at 56–56, leading to a timeout. Following the stoppage, the Jumbos pulled away, with Russell, Sousa and junior guard Annika Decker each scoring to bring the Jumbo lead to six. The margin held the rest of the way, with the Jumbos finishing 63–57 victors.

Russell commented on the Jumbos’ ability to close out the game.

“Focusing on one play at a time and getting stops immediately will translate into scoring and offense,” Russell said. “So, staying focused, and not letting a close game really get to us and get us frazzled and just staying focused on executing our offense to score [is crucial in late-game situations].”

Russell tallied a 29-point, 11-board double-double. Sousa also posted double-digits, with 15 points. Aspesi also had a game to remember, totaling 7 points to go along with a career-high 10 rebounds. Smith, Gerig, Leuenberger and Tounkara all put up double-digit performances for the Ephs, with Gerig adding 16 rebounds.

“My teammates did a really good job getting the ball into the post when we needed to score and moving the ball really well on offense and taking advantage of my size in the post,” Russell remarked.

The next day, the Jumbos traveled to Vermont to clash with the Middlebury Panthers. The Panthers were celebrating Senior Day, and the Jumbos looked to crash the party.  

From the jump, the game was even. The first half closed with a 32–32 score, with both teams scoring 16 points in each of the first two quarters. Russell led the Jumbos with 15 points in the half, and Decker chipped in with 9.

Thanks to 7 points each from guards Alexa Mustafaj and Augusta Dixon, the Panthers kept pace with Decker’s 5 points to take a slim 52–51 lead after the third quarter. Three minutes into the fourth quarter, the Jumbos emerged as slight leaders, with Russell’s two free throws giving them a 57–54 advantage. With five minutes to go, Dixon’s jumper gave the Panthers a 1-point lead. For the next two minutes and change, both teams went scoreless, until Sousa’s three put the Jumbos up 62–60. With 22 seconds remaining, Dixon’s layup marked the end of regulation’s scoring, evening the match at 67.

For the first time since Jan. 21, 2023, the Jumbos were headed to overtime. The first overtime period was as tight as regulation, with both sides scoring 6 points. With 35 seconds remaining, guard/forward Bethany Lucey made both of her foul shots, bringing the Panthers’ lead to 7370. Staring defeat in the eyes, Sousa swished a massive 3-pointer, knotting the game at 7373 and prompting another overtime.

The teams traded blows throughout the second overtime. With 15 seconds to go and the Jumbos down 7776, Decker stole the ball from Mustafaj, drove down the floor and converted a layup. Decker’s play gave the Jumbos what looked like the final points of the game. However, Lucey was fouled soon after and converted one of her free throws to even the score at 78.

With under three minutes remaining in the third overtime period, Decker’s two tied the score at 82. From there, though, Mustafaj showed her class, scoring the final 8 points to help Middlebury emerge 9082 victors.

While the Jumbos were unable to clinch the victory, the contest was a memorable one. Featuring 19 tie scores and 17 lead changes, it was the Jumbos’ first triple-overtime game since 198182.

“It was a really fun game, and these are the games we play basketball for. We just love playing in such highly competitive games that are close and fun and really challenging at the end of the day,” Russell said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t win, but [it’s] a good lesson for us and this can help us in really tough games down the road.”

Decker obliterated the box score, shooting 10-for-19 from the field and 3-for-7 from beyond the three-point arc. She posted 24 points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals, setting a new career high in points. Russell contributed 25 points, and junior guard Sophia Gonzalez added 15. For the Panthers, Mustafaj posted 31 points, with Dixon adding 35 points and 12 boards.  

“We can rely on many different people to score in many different ways. Annika Decker, she's mainly known for her outstanding and amazing defense, but in the Middlebury game, she really stepped up in scoring,” Russell said. “Being able to rely on her scoring talents as well has really helped the team.”

After the grueling away trip, Tufts will return home to face Colby on Friday. The next day, the team welcomes Bowdoin, who are currently undefeated in the NESCAC. The Bowdoin game will be the Jumbos’ Senior Day, and they will honor their five most experienced players.

“All the five seniors, we’re all really excited to play and we’ve all had such a great experience with this program,” Russell said. “[We’re] excited to stay focused and hopefully get two wins this weekend.”

If there’s one thing the program’s seniors understand, it is how to win. And, with four NESCAC games remaining, the Jumbos hope that the magic of their extraordinary collegiate career does not wear off and that they can make another successful postseason run.