MEDFORD, MA – In the NESCAC Semifinal, the Williams Ephs (18-8) gave the undefeated Tufts Jumbos (26-0) all they could handle, but the Jumbos' strong third quarter proved to be the difference in a 69-63 game that was in doubt until the final seconds.
The last time these two teams met, in the final game of the regular season, the Jumbos, ranked #1 in the country in NCAA DIII women's basketball, prevailed 76-60 after a strong second half. Though Tufts once again enjoyed a strong third quarter, the Ephs stayed in it until the final seconds this time. It wasn't enough, however, to secure a spot in the NESCAC final.
The Tufts offense, which had been held in check by Williams' defense for much of the first half, erupted for 22 points in the third quarter, extending their lead from 4 to 10 in the process. While the Ephs fought back in the fourth, cutting the deficit within five on three different occasions, the Jumbos ultimately held on and did not allow the Ephs to get within one possession. The Jumbos' ability to cut and make easy looks on offense, combined with the Ephs' struggles finishing down low, made a significant difference.
Despite the loss, Eph head coach Pat Manning was encouraged by Williams' effort today, which makes sense considering the quality of the opponent and the way the team consistently fought back in the fourth quarter. "I'm really proud of our team," remarked Manning. "The effort was tremendous. Even though we came up a little short, it was one of our best games of the season. It's just a testament to how hard our players work, their drive to improve every day.
Guard Maggie Meehan '21 paced the Ephs with 18 points on 7-for-20 (35.0%) shooting. Guard Emily Chang '20 was not close behind, scoring 11 of her 15 points, and making all 3 of her three-point shots, in the second half. Forward Maddy Mandyck '22 – who once again played all 40 minutes – enjoyed another strong all-around game, tallying six points, seven rebounds, and three assists.
Two Jumbos – guard-forward Erica DeCandido (21 points, 12 rebounds) and guard Molly Ryan (13 points, 10 rebounds) – earned double-doubles. Guard Sofia Rosa added 15 points on 7-of-9 (77.8%) shooting, consistently cutting to the rim and making high-percentage shots.
Fueled by a strong defensive effort, the Ephs took an early 11-4 lead with 3:30 to go in the first quarter. But the Jumbos' offense got back on track and outscored the Ephs 8-2 for the rest of the quarter, with Emily Briggs scoring six points on the run. With DeCandido's basket early in the second quarter, the Jumbos took a lead that they wouldn't relinquish for the rest of the game. Still, the Ephs managed to keep pace with the Jumbos, cutting the halftime deficit to just four on a layup by guard Mikaela Topper '21 with 12 seconds to go in the half. Down just 30-26 at halftime, the Ephs had plenty of reasons to be encouraged, especially on defense.
The Jumbos, however, moved the ball more effectively in the third quarter, scoring 22 points and taking a double-digit lead. Though Chang made two threes and Morgan Dauk contributed six points, it wasn't enough to keep up with a Tufts attack that had gained significant momentum. Chang's first three came on the Ephs' first possession of the half, narrowing the deficit to just one. But the Tufts offense responded with a 7-0 run and only grew the lead from there. Another 7-0 run toward the end of the quarter, culminating in a three-point play by DeCandido, gave Tufts a 12-point lead – their largest of the game – with just over two minutes to go in the quarter. The Jumbos finished the third quarter up ten, with the score being 52-42.
Williams tried to come back in the fourth, but ultimately, the significant lead Tufts had built up in the third quarter proved to be insurmountable. Still, the Ephs had their chances to get within one possession. The Ephs had the ball down just four with less than five minutes to go, but Meehan couldn't hit a floater off the glass and the Jumbos scored on their next three possessions. Williams clawed back once again – narrowing the deficit to five with just over a minute to go – but Brule's three-point attempt bounced off the front of the rim, and Tufts secured the rebound, effectively icing the game.
The Ephs never gave up, even when trailing by double digits against a formidable Jumbos team. "We came up with some big shots in the fourth, which started with some key rebounds on the other end," commented Manning. "That's our team – we just don't quit, we just keep coming at you and we keep fighting. When you know that you've left it all out there, that's a great feeling. We pushed the #1 team in the country to its limits."
DeCandido and Ryan each secured double-digit rebounds, and the Jumbos took a significant 22-13 rebounding advantage into the half. However, the Ephs outrebounded Tufts 22-15 in the second half, as the entire team crashed the boards more effectively. Each team turned the ball over 11 times.
The difference in rebounding in the halves was very noticeable, and a key reason why the Ephs stayed in the game late. "In the first half, they hurt us with rebounding, but we had a much better second half," said Manning. "Our guards – especially Morgan and Gabby – crashed the boards much better in the second half."
Though Tufts enjoyed a strong shooting game overall, going 28 of 59 (47.5%), the Ephs held them to just 3 of 14 (21.4%) from deep. The dip in three-point shooting is especially significant, as Tufts gashed the Ephs with a stunning 11 of 18 (61.1%) mark from beyond the arc in their regular-season matchup. Williams, however, wasn't much better from three, shooting just 6 of 24 (25.0%).
Reflecting on the season, Manning was impressed by both the Ephs' relentless work ethic and their ability to pull out close games this year. "We were coming off two kind of disappointing seasons where we didn't pull out close games, but we got much better at that this year," said Manning. "We had overtime wins, one-point wins, and I think that helped us build confidence. Our success of the season started at the end of last season, because our returning players pushed themselves, worked really hard in the summer and fall, and wanted to do what we knew we were capable of doing.
The Ephs' season, however, is not necessarily over. On Monday, they will learn whether they have earned an NCAA DIII tournament bid.