MEDFORD - The Tufts University women's basketball team is playing with confidence heading into the 2016 NCAA Division III Championship Game to be played Monday night (April 4) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, home of the Pacers in the NBA and the Fever in the WNBA. Tip-off is 6 pm ET.
The Jumbos reached their third consecutive NCAA "Final Four" with a 57-48 win at Scranton in the quarterfinals back on March 12. Tufts led by 16 points late in the first half before the Royals came back to tie the score at 45-45 in the fourth quarter. Playing in enemy territory, the Jumbos closed the game with a 12-3 run to advance.
Tufts had a hurdle to clear entering the semi-finals. In their two previous trips to the "final four" they had not won a game. In both 2014 and 2015, the Jumbos lost their semi-final game and a consolation contest. However, versus Wartburg on March 19 in Columbus, Ohio, the Jumbos held the Knights scoreless in the first quarter and built a 23-5 lead. Wartburg climbed back into it, closing to within four poitns at 47-43, but Tufts finished off a 63-50 win to earn their first trip to the NCAA final.
"I think we do have confidence that we have played some really great basketball during this NCAA Tournament, especially the last two games," head coach Carla Berube said. "I wish we could sustain that for 40 minutes and I think we’re going to have to against Thomas More."
The Jumbos' opponent on Monday is the undefeated defending national champion. The Saints are 32-0 and have an average winning margin of 38.5 points per game. They score 92.2 points per contest and allow 53.7 ppg. Thomas More advanced to the national final with a 74-65 win over Amherst, Tufts' conference rival whom the Jumbos split a pair of hard-fought, one-point games with this season. Thomas More brings a 65-game winning streak into Monday and a 96-1 overall record since 2013-14.
The Saints are led by three-time Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) National Player of the Year Sydney Moss. She is averaging 22.4 points per game, hitting 50.6 percent (220/435) from the field including 38.4 percent (91/237) from behind the three-point arc. Moss also leads the Saints on the boards with 7.3 rebounds per game, while she is second in assists with 5.6 per contest.
Moss is not the only Saint whom Tufts will need to contend with. D3hoops All-American Abby Owings (15.2 ppg, 4.8 apg, 70 three-pointers) is a smart, tough point guard, and All-Region selection Nikki Kiernan (13.5 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 2.7 blocks per game) gives the Saints presence inside. Led by these players, the Saints have a Division III-best 48.2 field goal percentage.
"They’re very balanced," Berube said. "They’ve got a great swag to them, great confidence, because they’ve been playing very well for the last few years. I think we learned a lot from playing them last year (in the NCAA semi-finals) and playing on that stage so hopefully we’ll be ready."
The Jumbos (88-6 since 2013-14) and Saints met in the national semi-finals in Grand Rapids, Michigan last season. The Saints earned a 62-52 victory and went on to win their first-ever NCAA title 83-63 over George Fox University.
In addition to WBCA and D3hoops.com All-American Michela North (14.3 ppg, 10.4 rbg), the Jumbos have received outstanding NCAA play from sophomores Melissa Baptista and Lauren Dillon. Against Wartburg, Dillon played all 40 minutes scoring 19 points including a clutch three after the Knights had closed the gap. Baptista was five for five shooting threes at Scranton and finished with 23 points.
Tufts enters the national championship game as the second-best team in the nation for scoring defense allowing 44.8 points per game. They will face a Thomas More team that is second nationally in scoring offense.
"We need to play our game," Berube said. "We need to defend. We need to bring great energy from start to finish. We need to limit Sydney Moss. She can’t have 39 points on us as she did in the sem-final game. When she gets going it’s hard to stop her. They have other very good players too. It’s just going to take a great defensive effort from everyone. We’ve been working a lot on our offense too, being able to execute and take care of the basketball and hopefully it will be enough."
The Jumbos left on Friday for what so far has been an amazing experience in Indianapolis. The Division I "Final Four" and the Division II championship game are also being playted at the site as the NCAA celebrates the 35th anniversary of the women's basketball tournament. Tufts will attempt to crown the moment in the best way possible starting at 6:00 Monday night.