Tufts brings jumbo-sized defense

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By Brian Lester

Not much was expected of the Tufts women this season, but they're proving the old adage about defense.
Tufts athletics photo

If there is one thing you can say about Tufts University's women's basketball team, it's that defense has set the stage for its success.

This is a Tufts team that loves to dig in on the defensive end and make life a pain for opposing teams. The Jumbos force opponents to have miserable nights shooting the ball --- opponents are shooting just 33.2 percent from the field --- and they are allowing only 46.1 points per outing.

The success on the defensive end of the floor isn’t a surprise. Tufts coach Carla Berube, who won  a national championship in 1995 as a member of the Connecticut women’s basketball team, has been stressing the importance of defense throughout her coaching career at Tufts.

This year is no exception as the Jumbos (23-6) prepare for the Sweet 16 on Friday night in a showdown with the University of St. Thomas (28-1) in Chicago.

“We have a very good defensive team,” said Berbue, providing a comment that could easily qualify as the understatement of the year. “We take pride in it and try to make it as we can on opponents to set up their offense. We contest shots, we play hard and it has definitely gotten us to where we are this week.”

Tufts boarded a plane Thursday morning for its trip to the Windy City, and not only are the Jumbos playing well defensively, but they have confidence on their side as they take aim at their first trip to the Elite Eight since 2008.

Tufts has won five of its last seven games, including a 61-57 win over Misericordia in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. The Jumbos earned a 55-46 win over Johns Hopkins in the second round.

“We are very excited about having a chance to play this weekend,” Berube said. “We know we will be playing a very good team in St. Thomas, but we had a couple of good wins in the tournament and if we play hard on defense, we will be in a position to win.”

Indeed, it all does go back to defense for the Jumbos. Senior guard Tiffany Kornegay has spearheaded the effort, racking up 73 steals and blocking 19 shots. She is also averaging 8.7 rebounds per game and has pulled down 193 defensive boards.

Kornegay was named the NESCAC Defensive Player of the Year last week. She is the fifth consecutive player from Tufts to earn the honor, a reminder of just how much Berube, the conference coach of the year, emphasizes defense to her players.

Sophomore guard Caitlin McClure has 37 steals while junior guard/forward Bre Dufault and fifth-year senior guard Kelsey Morehead have tallied 34 and 32 steals, respectively. Tufts has forced 590 turnovers and has come through with 127 blocks.

The thing is, it’s not about the turnover numbers for the Jumbos.

“We don’t necessarily force a lot of turnovers. It’s more about us forcing teams to shoot badly and controlling the defensive rebounds. If we can limit teams to one shot, we will be successful.”

One thing that has really caused opponents problems against the Jumbos is the difficulty in knocking down three-point shots. The trey can change the momentum of a game in a hurry, but against the Jumbos, teams are shooting just 25.3 percent from beyond the arc.

“That is huge, and I think a lot of it has to do with knowing the personnel of an opponent,” Berbue said. “We know what players we have to guard really well out there and what players we can lay off of a bit. We do a good job of preparing for a game and it shows in how we play defense.”

Offensively, the Jumbos are about as balanced as a team can be. Interestingly enough, however, there isn’t one player averaging 10 or more points per game.

Senior forward Kate Barnosky, an All-NESCAC first-team selection, is the leading scorer at 9.2 points per outing. Kornegay is clicking for 7.9 points per game. Morehead is averaging 6.8 ppg and junior guard/forward Collier Clegg and sophomore guard/forward Liz Moynihan are averaging 6.4 points per outing.

As a team, Tufts is putting up 59.9 points per game and is shooting 37.1 percent from the field.

“We don’t have that one player that we have to rely on to carry us,” Berbue said. “We are much more balanced than we have been in the past and anyone is capable of stepping up on any given night. You never know where our scoring is going to come from, and I think that makes us tough to prepare for.”

Tufts plays in a conference where it doesn’t always get the most recognition, but on Friday night, the spotlight will be on the Jumbos and Berbue said her team is looking forward to making the most of it.

“It’s going to come down to who makes plays,” Berbue said. “It’s nice being in this position. We’ve worked hard to get here. I feel like if we play up to our potential, we are going to be in a position to win. We just have to focus on what we have to be successful.”