GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – You will not see many better comebacks in a collegiate basketball game than this one.
No. 4 Tufts was trailing 53-41 with 5:30 left in regulation to No. 2 St. Thomas (Minn.) in Final Four action of the NCAA Division III tournament, but the Jumbos ended the game on a fierce 19-4 run, resulting in a 60-57 win in Grand Rapids — not to mention a second consecutive trip to the national championship game.
The Tommies (31-1), who were making their 24th appearance in the national tournament, scored 28 of the first 39 points in the second half, as a layup by senior guard Gabby Zehrer with 5:30 remaining gave the squad a 53-41 lead.
JUMBOS WIN!!!!!!! Down 12 with 5:30 left, @TuftsWbball comes back for a 60-57 win over St. Thomas to advance to Saturday's NCAA Final!!— Tufts Jumbos (@TuftsAthletics) March 17, 2017
The Jumbos (30-2, 9-1 in NESCAC), who were competing in Final Four action for the fourth straight season, regrouped and scored the next nine points. Freshman guard/forward Erica DeCandido tallied an old-fashioned 3-point play, junior captain and point guard Lauren Dillon buried a crucial 3-pointer off the dribble from the top of the circle with 2:51 left and senior captain Michela North (11 points, nine rebounds) went 2-for-2 from the free-throw line with 1:57, trimming the deficit to 53-50.
Senior center Kaitlin Langer, who finished with game highs of 20 points and 20 rebounds, tried to stem the tide, as she received the ball at the foul line, exploded out of a double team and converted a layup going to her left. The 6-foot-3 post player was fouled on her shot, but she missed the foul shot, and the score sat at 55-50 with 1:38 left.
When mounting a huge comeback, teams need to knock down many clutch shots, as Dillon did with 2:51 left, and then junior forward Melissa Baptista (team-high 16 points, game-high four steals, four rebounds) cashed in on a 3-point shot from the top of the arc, bringing the Jumbos to within two. Baptista applied pressure and stole the ensuing inbounds pass, and then went straight for the hoop, absorbed contact, and finished the layup. Baptista missed the free throw, but the score was knotted at 55-55 with 1:16 on the clock and all the momentum on the Jumbos' side.
Sophomore guard Jac Knapp (11 points, three steals) played the role of hero on both ends of the floor in the final minute, as she recorded a steal with 54 seconds left, and then buried a contested trey from the right wing with 32 seconds left, giving the Jumbos the lead for good at 58-55.
The Tommies tried to make one last push, as sophomore guard Lucia Renikoff (12 points) buried a mid-range jumper from the edge of the paint with 11 seconds left, shaving the deficit to 58-57. Dillon went to the line a pair of times, going 1-for-2 both times, as the Jumbos led 60-57 with seven seconds on the scoreboard. A last-second 3-point attempt by Renikoff was off target, and the Jumbos raced onto the court to celebrate, as Tufts lives to fight another day.
> @TuftsWbball will play in NCAA Championship Game on Saturday at 7:30 pm against either Amherst or Christopher Newport!!— Tufts Jumbos (@TuftsAthletics) March 17, 2017
The Jumbos' three seniors in North, forward Katy Hicks and guard Josie Lee will have one more shot at bringing home an NCAA title. The Jumbos will face off against the winner of the No. 1 Amherst and No. 7 Christopher Newport tilt for all the marbles on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. from the Van Noord Arena in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The Tommies controlled the backboard, holding a 46-22 advantage on the glass, while they shot 22-for-54 from the floor (40.7 percent), 3-for-13 from 3-point range (23.1 percent) and 10-for-13 from the charity stripe (76.9 percent). The Jumbos shot 21-for-54 from the floor (38.9 percent), 7-for-22 from beyond the arc (31.8 percent) and 11-for-18 from the line (61.1 percent).
It was obvious that there was going to be a good brand of basketball going on down in the post during this game, as North and Langer have excelled on both ends of the floor all year. The two battled throughout the contest in the paint, as Langer came in averaging 19.3 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks, while shooting 79.9 percent from the line. North was up for the physical task, as she posted a game-high six rejections.
The other big story of the game was the Jumbos' elite defense going up against the Tommies' high-octane offense. The Jumbos are second among all Division III institutions in the nation in scoring defense (42.9). The Tommies averaged 73.4 points per game this season.
The Jumbos never trailed in the first quarter, and Hicks, who has had a knack for connecting on big shots this season, drilled a long jumper from the left wing with 13 seconds left in the first frame, giving the Jumbos a 14-9 lead.
The Tommies responded with a 14-7 spurt, as a jumper from the right side Renikoff gave them the lead for the first time at 23-21 with 3:06 left until halftime. The Jumbos closed out of the half by scoring nine of the remaining 11 points, as a three-ball by Baptista started the run. North concluded the run with a lethal turnaround jumper off the right block going to her left, which sent the Jumbos into intermission with a 30-25 lead.
The Tommies came out of the locker room with the attitude of a team that was going to leave it all on the court, as the squad won the third frame, 18-10. The Jumbos built a trio of six-point leads during the first half of the third quarter, but back-to-back made free throws by sophomore center Hannah Spaulding gave the Tommies a 39-37 lead with 2:13 on the clock.
Langer buried a pair of free throws with seven seconds left in the third, giving her team a 43-40 advantage going into the dramatic final period. St. Thomas opened the fourth quarter with a 10-1 run, as they tried to run away with the game, but it was the Jumbos' defense down the stretch that made the difference, as they forced the Tommies into contested shots late in the shot clock and turnovers.