GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – The Tufts University Jumbos handed the University of St. Thomas its first loss of the season in Friday evening's NCAA Division III Tournament Semifinal game, defeating the Tommies 60-57 to earn a spot in championship game.
The Jumbos trailed by 12 points with 5:30 remaining, but outscored St. Thomas 19-4 in the remaining time to claim the victory.
With the win, Tufts improves to 30-2 on the year and will face undefeated Amherst College (32-0) in the NCAA Division III Championship game Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. Saturday's contest will serve as the third meeting of the season between the two New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) teams, with Amherst holding a 2-0 advantage. The matchup will mark the first time in NCAA Division III men's or women's basketball history that two teams from the same conference will face off in the championship game.
"They (St. Thomas) were tough all over," said Tufts head women's basketball coach Carla Berube. "Down the stretch, Kaitlin Langer was just a force on the boards and in the lane. They went up twelve and we regrouped and said this is not it, let's fight back right now, get some stops and make plays for each other. We put together a couple great minutes and that's what it takes down the stretch in this type of game."
"We have that experience," said Berube, as this is Tufts' fourth consecutive NCAA Final Four appearance. "I've always said that I have a very resilient squad that will fight tooth and nail to give everything they have out on the court."
Neither team scored in the first 2:30 of the contest until Tufts' Josie Lee (Augusta, Maine/Cony) drove to the basket and put in a layup. St. Thomas evened the score with a pair of free throws by Kaitlin Langer (Stillwater, Minn./Hill Murray), but two quick layups by Jacqueline Knapp (Westfield, N.J./Westfield) gave the Jumbos an early 6-2 lead.
With 3:04 to play in the first quarter, St Thomas' Lauren Fischer (Oshkosh, Wis./Lourdes Academy) drained a three-pointer to cut the deficit to one point. The Tommies responded with back-to-back layups, courtesy of Lee and Knapp, making the score 12-7.
Tufts' Katy Hicks (Canton, Mass./Ursuline Academy) hit a jumper with 13 seconds remaining to give the Jumbos a 14-9 advantage at the end of the first quarter.
St. Thomas' defense stepped up in the second quarter, forcing three Tufts shot clock violations.
To start the second quarter, St. Thomas' Maddie Wolkow (Lakeville, Minn./South) hit a triple to bring the Tommies within two points of the Jumbos, but Tufts' Jennie Mucciarone (North Reading, Mass./Westwood) answered with a three-pointer of her own.
As the midpoint of the half neared, Tufts maintained its lead, but St. Thomas kept the pressure on, cutting the lead to 21-19 after a three from Kaylie Brazil (Norwood-Young-America, Minn./Norwood-Young-America).
Following the bucket, St. Thomas' defense locked down the Jumbos, forcing a Tufts turnover on the shot clock violation, their third of the quarter. Following a media timeout, St. Thomas' Hannah Spualding () tied the game and a made jumper by Lucia Renikoff (Minneapolis, Minn./Washburn) gave the Tommies their first lead of the game.
Seventeen seconds later, Melissa Baptista (Somerville, Mass./Somerville) knocked down a three from the top of the key to regain the lead for Tufts and kick off a 7-0 scoring run. The Jumbos outscored the Tommies 9-2 in the final three minutes of the quarter to hold a 30-25 lead heading into halftime.
At the break, 18 of Tufts points had been scored in the pain and 13 came off Tommies' turnovers.
The teams exchanged points early in the second half as three St. Thomas field goals were answered by Tufts buckets, including a three-pointer from Lee.
With 5:35 left in the quarter, St. Thomas' offense heated up, stringing together six straight points to knot the score at 37.
After two minutes of no scoring, Spaulding was fouled and sunk a pair of free throws to give St. Thomas its second lead of the game.
With just under a minute remaining, Renikoff hit a baseline jumper to increase the lead to 41-37. Baptista answered, draining a three-pointer to bring the Jumbos within one point of the Tommies. After a pair of free throws by St. Thomas' Kaitlin Langer (Stillwater, Minn./Hill Murray), the Tommies headed into the final quarter with a 43-40 lead.
The Tommies continued to roll in the fourth quarter, outscoring Tufts 8-1, all points courtesy of Langer, before the Jumbos called a timeout. After a bucket by Gabby Zehrer (Rogers, Minn./Totino-Grace), St. Thomas held a 53-41 advantage with 6:21 remaining.
The Jumbos were resilient and responded with a nine-point run, holding the Tommies scoreless for over four minutes. Langer broke up the run with a layup to make the score 55-50 with 1:38 left on the clock.
Baptista stepped up once again for the Jumbos, hitting a three-pointer, stealing the ball on the following inbounds play and putting it back for a game-tying layup.
"That's what we call 'Baptista time'," said Berube. "She just can do that. When the time was right and we needed her, she stepped up."
Tufts didn't let up as Knapp hit a three-pointer from the corner to give the Jumbos a 58-55 lead. Renikoff hit a jumper with eleven seconds left, the Tommies' final bucket of the game.
"We did have the momentum going for us and that really helped a lot," said Knapp. "I think that it gave us a burst of excitement since we'd been battling and come back from a 12-point deficit."
Following the basket, St. Thomas immediately fouled Tufts' Lauren Dillon (Wellesley, Mass./Noble & Greenough). Dillon made the front end of pair of free throws, but came up with the offensive rebound after missing the second foul shot. The Tommies fouled and Dillon went 1-2 from the line once again, but the Jumbos were unable to tie the game on the last-second three point attempt.
Baptista led the Jumbos' offense with 16 points, also earning four steals. All-American Michaela North (Duxbury, Mass./Duxbury), who battled with fellow All-American Langer in the paint all night, finished with 11 points, one rebound shy of a double-double and a game-high six blocks, including five blocks on Langer. Knapp also posted 11 points, including 8 first-half points and the go-ahead three-pointer.
"I have total respect for her (Langer)," said North. "She's a great player offensively and defensively. I was trying my best on defense and she was still scoring. I just tried to work around it and get some stops so we could turn that into offense."
St. Thomas' Kaitlin Langer finished with a double-double, leading all players with 20 points and a career-high 20 rebounds. Renikoff finished with 12 points.
"In the second half we really tried to go inside, either via the drive or via the post," said St. Thomas head women's basketball coach Ruth Sinn. "We kept trying to isolate. Kaitlin did a nice job, we got the ball into the post and we created some problems with that."
The Tommies outrebounded the Jumbos 46-22, but had 20 turnovers compared to Tufts' nine.
St. Thomas finishes its season with a 31-1 overall record, including an 18-0 conference mark that earned the Tommies their third consecutive regular-season title. St. Thomas graduates three seniors, Paige Gernes (Winona, Minn./Cotter), Zehrer and Langer.
"I'm really proud of our girls and how they competed," said Sinn. "We were down the whole first half, but the third and fourth quarter we found a way to be successful. It was just a little bit too late and we ran out of time."
ST. THOMAS POST-GAME PRESS CONFERENCE
TUFTS POST-GAME PRESS CONFERENCE