|A picture is worth a thousand words: This is what Tufts' defense feels like.
Scranton athletics photo
By Sarah Sommer
Tufts has been here before. In fact, the Jumbos are in the NCAA Final Four for a third consecutive time.
That is the longest active streak among this year’s national semifinalists. Amherst did not reach the last two Final Fours, and Thomas More--the reigning national champion--is in its second consecutive Final Four. Wartburg, Tufts’ opponent on Saturday, is making its first Final Four appearance in team history.
Tufts has experience. But it does not have a national championship.
“We keep saying third time’s a charm,” junior forward/center Michela North said. “We really want to win it this time.”
That may seem like an obvious goal for a national semifinalist, but for Tufts, the desire to win the national title was not always so intense. In the Jumbos’ first Final Four, in 2014, simply getting to that weekend was a victory.
“We were kind of deer in headlights,” Tufts coach Carla Berube said. “It was all just a new experience. And not that we were happy to have lost, but I think we were just so excited to have made it that far.”
The events of the weekend took getting used to, North said.
“The whole banquet, and the social, and the community service, you get really wrapped up in that,” she said, describing her first experience with the Final Four activities as “a little bit distracting.”
Tufts returned to the national semifinals more focused in 2015. North described feeling like she was “on a mission” or a “business trip.”
Getting to know Tufts
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This year Tufts is 27-3. The Jumbos went 10-0 in NESCAC regular-season play for a third straight year and reached the Final Four despite having lost guard Kelsey Morehead, guard Hannah Foley, and forward Hayley Kanner to graduation. Foley and Kanner were 1,000-point scorers. Morehead was Tufts’ starting point guard for most of her career.
Their departures left holes in the rotation. In December, North said, “we didn’t really have everyone’s role set,” and it showed in losses at Bowdoin and Connecticut College.
While it has taken some time for players to find their roles, Tufts has kept the same starting line up for much of the season. North and senior Emma Roberson have started every game. Sophomore guard Lauren Dillon has only missed one start and fellow sophomore Melissa Baptista missed two. Junior Josie Lee missed a handful of starts in January and then eased back into the starting lineup down the stretch.
As North said, they all play key roles in Tufts' defensive-oriented approach. Berube describes Dillon and Lee as the first line of defense. They are aggressive and make the opponents' ball handlers work hard to set up their offense. Even if they don't generate a turnover, they can run the shot clock down and, over the course of a game, wear an opponent down.
Roberson often finds herself in the passing lane, turning a back-door cut into a possession-ending turnover. And she provides the outside scoring balance that the Jumbos need for their halfcourt offense to be effective.
The Jumbos generally don't have to worry about inside scoring because North takes care of that. She is Tufts’ leading scorer (14.3 ppg), as she was last season (13.9 ppg). But with Kanner gone, she has the additional responsibility of being Tufts’ main post presence.
“She’s really stepped up her game to be, I think, one of the best centers and best forwards in the country in D3,” Berube said. “She’s kind of put us on her back in the paint, and inside, defensively and offensively.”
North's defense was on full display in the Jumbos' sectional final game at the University of Scranton. North was matched up with Mid-Atlantic All-Region selection Alexix Roman. Instead of letting Roman back her way into the post and trying to stop her once she had the ball, North played off Roman's shoulder and draped her long arms into the spot where the entry pass was supposed to go. North used her length and athleticism to deny Scranton its first option and, at times, shut down the Royals' offense like tossing a wrench in a grandfather clock.
Baptista also has a new role. After averaging 6.7 points and 13.3 minutes per game off the bench last season, she is now a starter averaging 10.1 points and 22.8 minutes per game. And Baptista was the difference down the stretch against Scranton when Tufts needed one.
Early in the fourth quarter, Tufts held a 45-35 lead. A 10-0 Scranton run tied the game with 6:53 remaining and the Long Center crowd errupted, perhaps equally inspired by Scranton's comeback and the St. Patrick's Day festivities.
Berube called a 30-second timeout to stem the tide, and it worked. “We just were able to stay composed and together, because we have so much experience playing with each other now and every role is filled,” North said.
Baptista played the role of hero in the final seven minutes. She started the game-deciding run with a fade away jumper that rattled off the rim and through the net. Better yet, she was fouled and had a chance to complete a three-point play. She missed the free throw, but grabbed the offensive rebound to keep the possession alive, and the Jumbos eventually found Lee for a three-pointer.
Scranton tried to stop the Jumbos' roll but North blocked Roman's shot on the next possession and, two possessions later, Baptista hit a step-back three pointer to push Tufts' lead to eight. Baptista capped the game-clinching rally by stealing the ball from Scranton and coasting in for a layup.
Coach Berube joked after the game that the fourth quarter was "Baptista time," and that the Jumbos never know when that time will come, partly because Baptista occassionally finds herself stuck on the bench with foul trouble. She fouled out of Tufts' sectional semifinal game against Albright and was close to doing so against Scranton. But, if she can stay on the floor, she's a special weapon, combining North's length with a guard's shooting touch.
And so Tufts is back in the Final Four with one more chance to bring a national championship back to Medford, Mass. It is not a new experience, but, Berube said, “it won’t ever get old.”