WESTFIELD, Mass. -- Westfield State drew a tall task in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. The Owls will square off with No. 6 ranked Tufts, which hosts the first two rounds at the Cousens Gymnasium in Medford, Mass. on Friday, March 2 and Saturday, March 3.
Westfield will face Tufts at 7:00 p.m. on Friday, in the second game of the session. Ithaca (NY) will play SUNY-Geneseo in the 5:00 p.m. game.
The Jumbos (23-4) were ranked as the preseason #1 team in the nation by D3hoops.com, after making appearances in the national title game in each of the last two seasons. The Jumbos earned an at-large bid into the tournament after falling to number one-ranked Amherst on Sunday in the NESCAC title game 44-40.
Westfield State (19-7) is making its third straight NCAA Tournament appearance after winning three straight league titles themselves. The Owls fell to Montclair State, then the #12 team in the nation last year by an 81-73 score.
"When you reach this point in the season you are with the best of the best," said Owls' 13th-year head coach Andrea Bertini. "We're playing a team that just lost to the number one team in the country by four points. It's a tremendous opportunity for our school, in tiny Western Mass, to play a team that's a national powerhouse. It's an honor to be there, and an opportunity for our team to do something great and rise to the challenge."
The Owls hope that their 'System' style of play will prove as difficult to play against as it has for foes all season long.
The Owls lead the nation (out of 435 schools at the Division III level in scoring 88.5 points per game, steals at 20.1 per game, and turnover margin at +16.58. The Owls scored 100 or more points in a game eight times this season.
Westfield is led by junior guard Lucy Barrett (Mt. Greylock/Williamstown, Mass.) after scoring nearly 16 points per game and two steals per game, while shooting better than 33 percent from three-point range. Barrett is one of the nation's best free throw shooters, connecting at a 93.4 percent clip this season.
Owls' point guard Chelsea Moussette (Hampshire/Southampton, Mass.) may be a reverse match-up problem for the Jumbos. At a listed 5-1, the Owls lightning quick guard has been a key factor in turning opponents over on the press, and she has made better than 34 percent of her three point tries, while electrifying Woodward Center crowds with her passing. She averages eight points and four assists per game.
Junior guard Kierra McCarthy (Ludlow, Mass.) plays bigger than her listed 5-7 height, and averages 12.8 points, 5.0 rebounds and nearly three steals per game while shooting 35 percent from three-point range. She is coming off a weekend where she was named the MVP of the MASCAC Tournament.
Westfield will also hope its senior leadership shines in the post season. Guard Alyssa Darling (Palmer, Mass.) was on the court for her first MASCAC title, after missing most of the previous two seasons with knee surgery. Darling dished out nine assists in the title game and looks to be operating at full speed again.
"We have a great team, and a lot of our players have been in the NCAA Tournament before," said Bertini. "We are well prepared physically, and we have a mentally tough group. We have played through adversity, played a challenging non-conference schedule where we have played against teams that have similar length and size as Tufts."
"Our players have put in the hard work in season and out of season, we're talented, and our players work together and put team success ahead of individual accomplishments."
Post player Rebecca Sapouckey (Granby/Chicopee, Mass.) and Keri Paton (Westfield/Russell, Mass.) will need to be key factors in countering Tufts' size. The 6-foot Sapouckey has been a mainstay for four years, winning four league titles and three tournaments, and Paton, a three year player, had one of her best games in the MASCAC title game with 13 points on 4-6 shooting from the floor.
Tufts counts 10 players on its roster at 5-11 or taller, while Sapouckey is the lone Owl to register such lofty heights.
Sophomore swing guard Erica Decandido leads a balanced scoring attack for the Jumbos with 13.7 points per game and grabs 6.5 rebounds per game. Senior forward Melissa Baptista added 12.9 points and a team-high 6.7 rebounds per game. Junior guard Jac Knapp checks in with 10.4 ppg and senior guard Lauren Dillon triggers the offense with 3.3 assists per game.
"Tufts has excellent players, they are well-coached and well-disciplined," said Bertini. "They are one of the top five teams in the nation almost every year. They will certainly be a tremendous challenge for us, but one we are excited to have."
The Jumbos average 66 points per game and allow opponents just 48 per contest, and have held opponents to 34 percent shooting from the floor. The Jumbos used their length to play a tight man-to-man defense in the NESCAC championship game loss.
Tufts is in the NCAA tournament for the seventh straight year and the 10th overall. The Jumbos lost to Amherst 53-29 in the 2017 NCAA Championship game, and to Thomas More (Ky.), 63-51 in 2016.
Tufts has been a familiar face on the national stage recently. Coach Carla Berube, a member of UConn's 1995 National Championship team as a player, has guided the team to four straight (2014-17) appearances in the NCAA "Final Four." Since earning their first NCAA berth in 2008, Tufts has advanced to seven "Sweet 16s" and five "Elite 8s." They have a 27-11 record in their nine previous NCAA appearances.
Regis, Bridgewater State, Worcester State, UMass Dartmouth, WPI, Trinity and Wesleyan are all common opponents between the two teams.
Westfield posted a 5-5 mark against these foes, while Tufts was a perfect 7-0. Tufts 74-66 win over UMD was the closest margin of victory against the seven common opponents.
The other side of the pod features Ithaca (20-7) playing SUNY Geneseo (25-2). The Ithaca Bombers are making their 14th NCAA appearance overall and sixth in the last seven seasons. They are led by six-foot sophomore forward Cassidy O'Malley who scores nearly 18 points per game. SUNYAC champion Geneseo is in the NCAA's for the 10th time overall and fourth straight season. The Knights' balanced attack is led by 6-1 junior forward McKenna Brooks, who averages 12.9 points and 7.9 rebounds per game.
The winner of the Westfield-Tufts game and the winner of Ithaca-Geneseo will meet on Saturday at 5:00 p.m., with the winner advancing to the Sweet 16 round of the tournament.