By Pat Coleman
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Tufts made five of its last eight shots, including three 3-pointers, in the final 6:14 as the Jumbos rallied from a 12-point deficit with five minutes left and roared into the national championship game with a 60-57 win vs. St. Thomas.
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The Jumbos will be joined by a familiar foe, as Amherst had an easy time of it in defeating Christopher Newport 66-51.
Jac Knapp gave Tufts (30-2) the lead with a 3-pointer from the wing with 32 seconds left, part of a 19-4 game-ending run.
"For us to come away with a victory tonight just feel very, very fortunate," said Tufts coach Carla Berube, who has her team in the national title game for the second year in a row. "They were tough all over. They had players making plays and then down the stretch. Kaitlin Langer was just a force, a beast, on the boards in the lane.
"And then they went up 12 and we just kind of regrouped and said, ’this is not it, ‘let’s fight back. Let’s get stops and make plays for each other.’ And we finally did that."
The Tommies (31-1) went 1-for-7 with four turnovers during the Jumbos' game-ending run. After Gabby Zehrer converted a layup with 5:39 left to give St. Thomas a 53-41 lead, Erica DeCandido converted a three-point play and Melissa Baptista hit one of two foul shots to cut the lead to 53-45.
Langer, a senior center, had a shot blocked and missed a second, which Baptista rebounded, leading to a Lauren Dillon 3-pointer, her only one of the game in six attempts. Michaela North hit a pair of free throws to cut the lead to 53-50 before Langer answered with a layup, her last bucket of the night, with 1:38 left.
|Michela North blocked six shots, five of them by Kaitlin Langer and this one by Hannah Spaulding.
Photo by Steve Frommell, d3photography.com
Then Baptista took over for a lightning-quick stretch. She hit a 3-pointer off a feed from Knapp with 1:24 left to cut the St. Thomas lead to 55-53, then stole the inbounds pass and hit a layup to tie the game with 1:16 remaining.
Baptista had a team-high 16 points for the Jumbos, seven of them in the fourth.
"That's what we call Sasha time," said Berube, referring to Baptista's nickname. "Baptista time. She just can do that. I can’t say that was one of Melissa’s greatest games but when the time is right and we needed her, she stepped right up."
On the other end, Knapp stole an offensive rebound out of the hands of UST's Lauren Fischer and hit the 3-pointer on the other end to give Tufts the lead for the first time since it was 37-36 with 4:43 left in the third.
"It gave us a burst of excitement because we had been battling, and that’s when we got the lead back," Knapp said. "I think we were all holding our breath for a while at the end, then took a deep breath."
Lucia Renikoff kept UST in the game with a jumper in the lane with 9.9 seconds left to cut the lead to 58-57. After Dillon missed two of four free throws, the Tommies had a shot to tie the game but Renikoff's 3-point attempt didn't fall with a second left.
The rally overshadowed an epic performance by Langer, who scored 20 points and had a career-high 20 rebounds, 10 points and eight rebounds in the fourth quarter alone. But Langer was just 7-for-18 from the floor and had five of her shots blocked by North.
“I think it was just confidence, feel of the game, reading her footwork," Langer said of the stretch in the beginning of the fourth. “That is challenging for me. I don’t think I’ve faced anyone with that type of length all year.”
"She was really hard to guard," North said. "I was just trying to work around so that guards wouldn’t pass it in to her. I thought I was playing some of my best on defense and she was still scoring."