Post talent has Jumbos thinking big

More news about: Tufts

By Gordon Mann

Tufts' center Hayley Kanner is the 2015 Northeast Region Player of the Year.
Tufts photo by Kelvin Ma

At some point when Thomas More plays Tufts in the national semifinals, there's likely to be a moment when Saints' point guard Abby Owings, who stands 5-foot-2, matches up with Tufts point guard Kelsey Morehead, who also stands 5-foot-2. Or maybe Tufts will “go big” and put 5-foot-3 Lauren Dillon on Owings.

Those types of battles between quick, hard-charging guards are always fun. You know what else is fun?

Someone who can back down a hapless, undersized opponent in the post and score over the top of them, like a sledge hammer pounding a square peg into a round hole. Someone who can pull down a rebound with a mix of determination and maybe a little bit of disdain for would-be challengers. Someone who swats an opponent's shot across the court, erasing her field goal attempt and a small part of her confidence.

Big is fun. Tall is fun. Strong is fun.  And Tufts is having big fun and big success because of its post players, Hayley Kanner and Michela North.

Kanner is a 6-foot-2 center who has already had a pretty good week. On Monday the senior was named the Northeast Region Player of the Year, after also being named the NESCAC player of the year.

Kanner came to Tufts four years ago from Scarsdale, N.Y. Thinking back on the recruiting process and her decision to attend Tufts, she remembers being impressed by the campus located five miles from downtown Boston and head coach Carla Berube. "Coach wrote me a handwritten note, and that’s what set [Tufts] apart for me."

Kanner brought size to Tufts, but she didn't have the traditional skill set for a low post player. "In high school I wasn't much of a back-to-the-basket post player and I've become that now.” Still, Berube noticed Kanner's potential. "When I saw Hayley play in high school and in AAU, I saw she was definitely capable of scoring [in the post]. She was more of a finesse player, and she still is, but she's very good at feeling the defense and reacting to it.”

Michela North and the Jumbos' defense held its last two opponents 32 points below their season scoring average.
Photo by Kelvin Ma, Tufts

Plus, as Berube notes, size sells itself. "If 6-foot-2 comes across your plate, you jump at that."

Michela North, who is also 6-foot-2, had a different journey to Tufts two years ago. She's the fourth generation of her family to attend Tufts. Her mother Martha played three sports for the Jumbos, earning All-American honors in lacrosse. North originally didn't intend to follow in her mother's footsteps. "I wrote off Tufts back in eighth grade." She looked at other colleges, including the Ivy League schools, but a visit to campus and the proximity of Medford to her family in Duxbury, Mass., helped change her mind.

Kanner and North cite similar challenges in their transition from high school to college basketball. Both noted the need to get stronger, tougher and more polished with their moves. "In high school I was one of the biggest players in my league, and probably the state," recalls North. "I was a back-to-the-basket post player, but there wasn't much to go against in high school. I would just get the ball, turn around and go right up with it."

At 6-foot even Berube isn't as tall as Kanner and North. but that didn't stop her from attacking the rim as a key member of the University of Connecticut's undefeated national championship team in 1995. "I loved playing with my back to the basket," says Berube. "I told Hayley and Michela that they need a 'go-to' move and a counter for when the defense can stop that."

Along with Berube, Kanner and North have had other mentors at Tufts to help them develop their game. Kanner credits the positive impact of Ali Rocchi who finished her playing career last year. "Her leadership in the post was certainly helpful to me. She was just a tough body to go against every day in practice." Berube also notes the work of her assistant coaches, including Kate Barnosky, who shifted from wing to post when she played at Tufts.

Who will win the women's national title?
George Fox
Montclair State
Thomas More

Now Kanner fills the same teaching role for North. "Hayley’s done a wonderful job mentoring Michela and our other post players," says Berube. "And Michela’s a sponge and wants to learn as much possible."

The learning has paid off so far. North and Kanner combine for 27 points, 15 rebounds and 4.5 blocks per game. They can run the high-low post with Kanner feeding North from the top of the key, or vice versa. And they are a big part of a defense that surrenders the fewest points per game in all of Division III (46.7).

Kanner and North share the same major-- psychology with a minor in entrepreneurial leadership studies. They shared All-Region honors with Kanner on the first team and North on the fourth. And they share something with their Tufts teammates that no one else does at this weekend's Final Four at Calvin College.

Tufts is the only team that played in the national semifinals last year. Montclair State and Thomas More are making their first trip to the Final Four as programs. While the seniors at George Fox were part of that team's Final Four run in 2012, the experience for Tufts' sophomores, juniors and seniors is fresher in their minds, and there's determination to improve on last year's fourth place finish.

"Already knowing what’s going to happen will help us mentally prepare. And having that feeling of losing there, we absolutely do not want to feel that again," says North. "People don’t want to hear that you went far. They want to hear that you won."

So you can add big expectations to the big talent that the Jumbos bring to Grand Rapids this weekend.