NCAA Semifinal: Tufts 60, St. Thomas (MN) 57

NCAA Semifinal: Tufts 60, St. Thomas (MN) 57

Courtesy of Tufts Sports Information

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – You will not see many better comebacks in a collegiate basketball game than this one.

Jac Knapp buried the game-clinching 3-pointer with 32 seconds left.

The Tufts University women's basketball team was trailing, 53-41, with 5:30 left in regulation to 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 and 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. 

The Jumbos (30-2), who were competing in Final Four action for the fourth straight season, regrouped and scored the next nine points. Rookie Erica DeCandido tallied an old-fashioned 3-point play, junior captain 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, 9 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. 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. 

Dillon buried a jumper with 2:51 left, and junior forward Melissa Baptista (team-high 16 points, game-high 4 steals, 4 rebounds) cashed in on a 3-point shot from the top of the arc, bringing the Jumbos to within two. Baptista applied defensive pressure and stole the ensuing inbounds pass, and went straight for the hoop, absorbed contact and finished the layup. Baptista missed the free throw, to knot the score 55-55 with 1:16 on the clock. 

Sophomore guard Jac Knapp (11 points, 3 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 made 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 on both trips, to give the Jumbos a 60-57 lead 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.

Tufts will meet NESCAC rival Amherst for the NCAA title on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. from the Van Noord Arena in Grand Rapids, Michigan. 

The Tommies controlled the backboard with a 46-22 advantage on the glass, and shot 40.7 percent from the floor and 23.1 percent from 3-point range (3-for-13 from). The Jumbos were 21-for-54 from the field (38.9 percent), 7-for-22 from beyond the arc (31.8 percent) and 11-for-18 from the line (61.1 percent).

The Jumbos never trailed in the first quarter, and Hicks drilled a long jumper from the left wing with 13 seconds left in the first frame, giving the Tufts 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 by Baptista started the run. North concluded the run with a turnaround jumper, which sent the Jumbos into intermission with a 30-25 lead. 

The Tommies came out of the locker room and won the third frame, 18-10. The Jumbos built a six-point lead three times 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, but it was the Jumbos' defense down the stretch that made the difference. Tufts forced the Tommies into contested shots late in the shot clock and turnovers to fuel its comeback.