|This has been a familiar scene for Tufts' opponents this season. Michela North and Melissa Baptista thwart a would-be shot attempt.
Photo by Eric Kelley, d3photography.com
By Gordon Mann, D3sports.com
When Wartburg missed its first couple of shots in its national semifinal game against Tufts University, it didn’t seem noteworthy. Great teams commonly start slowly in the Final Four, whether it’s the unfamiliar gym, the enormity of the moment or rust from a one week layoff. Tufts missed its first couple shots, too.
As the first quarter wore on, Tufts found ways to score. A three from sophomore wing Melissa Baptista followed by a layup from sophomore guard Lauren Dillon put the Jumbos up five. Meanwhile Wartburg’s offense continued to struggle. Wartburg’s possessions ended on long, contested threes as the Knights struggled to get open looks, on the perimeter or near the basket. Wartburg missed a layup or two as the drought extended through the first period, but for the most part the Knights were legitimately shut down.
The scoreboard at Capital University appeared to be broken at the end of the first quarter – Tufts 9 Wartburg 0. The box score doesn’t lie. Wartburg was 0-for-11 with one offensive rebound and six turnovers.
“That first quarter was pretty sweet,” said a smiling Tufts head coach Carla Berube in the postgame press conference. “I told the team that was the best quarter of defense that I’ve ever been around – not that we’ve played quarters very long. Ten minutes of unbelievable defense against a really great offense.”
Tufts has played a lot of unbelievable defense against great offenses this season. The Jumbos have played 12 games against NCAA Tournament teams entering Monday night’s national championship game against No. 1 Thomas More (32-0). And while Tufts had not shut out any of its prior opponents for a quarter, its road to Indianapolis is paved with lots of hard-nosed, ball-pressuring, shot-blocking defensive gems.
In the third game of the season Tufts defeated the University of New England 61-43, holding the Nor’easters to their lowest offensive output of a 25-win season. The box score from that game is vintage Tufts basketball. UNE’s offense had a couple mediocre quarters and an ugly one in which they scored seven points on 3-for-16 shooting. They finished the game shooting 34 percent with 25 turnovers. Tufts’ offense did not overwhelm the Nor’easters in any one quarter, but the Jumbos still beat a very good team by 12.
University of New England coach Anthony Ewing credits the Jumbos’ defensive excellence to their being “athletic, disruptive, disciplined, and prepared.” He adds, “Coach Berube does such a great job preparing them to succeed. Those kids know what their goals are defensively and are committed as a team to accomplish them. They are as cohesive as a unit defensively as I've seen.”
Each of Tufts’ tournament wins includes at least one stellar defensive stretch.
- First round game, fourth quarter: Regis hangs with heavy favorite Tufts for much of the game and trails the Jumbos by just five points entering the fourth quarter. But the Pride score only 10 points in the final frame with more turnovers (five) than field goals (four) and no made three-pointers.
- Second round game, first quarter: Tufts puts Moravian away early by outscoring the Greyhounds 21-7. Moravian is held to 3-for-12 shooting and six turnovers.
- Sectional semifinal, late third/early fourth quarters: Tufts outscores Albright 10-2 in the final two minutes of the third period and then holds the Lions to just two points over the first four minutes of the final period to put the game out of reach.
- Sectional final, first quarter: A large, energetic crowd fills the University of Scranton’s John J. Long Center, ready to explode at the start of the Royals’ game against Tufts. The Jumbos diffuse the bomb by holding the Royals to five first quarter points. Scranton finishes the first half with 17 points on 6-for-25 shooting and nine turnovers.
Trying to stop (or at least slow down) Thomas More
Anthony Ewing, University of New England
Scranton head coach Trevor Woodruff, whose team also plays very good defense, called Tufts “the best defense we saw all season. Their overall size for position was excellent and their athleticism was much better than I thought going into the game. Baptista being able to guard both inside and out at her size is a big benefit.”
In the Jumbos’ 48 quarters against NCAA tournament teams only twice has a team scored 20 points or more. Bowdoin did it back on December 5 when the Polar Bears tallied 26 points in the second quarter of Tufts’ worst game of the season. And Wartburg scored 20 points in the third quarter to claw its way back into the national semifinal game.
Like Scranton did in the sectional final, Wartburg fought its way back into the game. Tufts’ offense is usually not explosive enough that they will blow quality opponents away. Scranton pulled even with Tufts with about five minutes left in the fourth quarter and Wartburg got within four at the same point in the national semifinal.
In both cases Berube called a 30-second time out so her team could regroup for the final push and they responded by scoring on their first possession out of the break and finishing the game on a decisive run. But offense wasn’t Tufts’ focus during those pivotal breaks. When asked what she told her players in that late timeout against Wartburg, Berube responded “I think I said the same sort of thing (as in the Scranton game). Let’s get some defensive stops here. It’s been too easy for them the last couple minutes and that’ll fuel our offense.”
In a way Tufts’ offense also fuels its defense. Albright head coach Janice Luck explains: “The other aspect that makes their defense so good is their patience on offense. They limit possessions for opposing teams when they control the tempo of the game.” Teams that want to push tempo against the Jumbos find it is as hard as playing tug-of-war with an elephant.
In Monday’s championship game the team on the other end of the rope will be the defending national champions Thomas More, which is not only undefeated but practically unparalleled on offense. The Saints are ranked second in the country in scoring at 92.2 points per game, trailing only run-and-gun North Central (Ill.) which averaged 94.7 points per game without any NCAA tournament games to deflate its average.
More than that, though, Thomas More is incredibly efficient. The Saints lead Division III women’s basketball with 722 assists and a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. The next closest team (Washington U.) has a 1.33 ratio, about a third lower than Thomas More.
And of course Thomas More has three-time national player of the year Sydney Moss who had a season like none other in Division III women’s basketball history last year. The Saints also have All-American point guard Abby Owings and All-Region forward Nikki Kiernan, who are a year older and wiser than they were when the Saints beat Tufts 62-52 in the national semifinal last year.
In that game Tufts dictated tempo and mostly held the Saints' offense in check. Thomas More’s starting back court shot 4-for-15 and as a team the Saints shot only 35 percent with 17 turnovers. But Owings press-breaking speed and Moss’ all-around excellence were too much to overcome.
On Monday night Tufts will have another chance to add one more stellar defensive performance to its resume and a national championship plaque to its trophy case.