WATERVILLE — It could be seen as another example of the depth of quality women’s lacrosse teams in the New England Small Athletic Conference. It could be symptomatic of a larger problem. It could be just one of those things that happens in a long season.

Whatever the cause, the effect was a surprising loss for Colby. The Mules, who were ranked No. 8 in the latest Division III national poll, led by three goals with 20 minutes left, but dropped a 16-14 decision to unranked Tufts on Saturday afternoon at Bill Alfond Field.

“Colby is a great team. Not even a good team. They are a great team,” Tufts coach Courtney Farrell said. “I’m sure they’ll have a lot of success the rest of the year. So it absolutely was a big one for our program.”

It was the third time in four games that the Mules struggled to close out a win. They were shut out in the second half of a 6-4 loss to Trinity. They were out-shot 11-0 in the final 15 minutes of a 12-10 win over Hamilton. On Saturday, they were outscored 7-2 in the final 20 minutes.

“I think we just have to be focused for 60 minutes,” Colby coach Karen MacCrate Henning said. “We do a lot of good things, but it has to be 60 minutes of good things. We can’t do it for 30 minutes, and take some breaks once in a while. Some of the stuff we did was beautiful, on both ends of the field, so if we can make it a complete game, I think we can fare really well.”

Colby (2-2) was in good company, as No. 2 Trinity was stunned 6-3 by unranked Bates on Saturday. Still, this was an upset. Tufts (3-2) was coming off a 17-7 loss to No. 4 Cortland State,

“I think against Cortland, we weren’t finishing the ball as much as we’d like or stopping the ball in the defensive end as much as we’d like,” Farrell said. “We did a better job of that today, absolutely.”

With Katherine Eddy (six goals, three assists) making lots of noise on offense, Colby jumped out to a 6-3 lead in the first half. Tufts responded with four consecutive goals, but Colby tied it up at 7 when Eddy assisted Abby Hooper, and made a long defensive stand to keep the score 7-7 at halftime.

Tufts goalkeeper Rachel Gallimore made some tough stops in the first half, and those would prove crucial later. But at the start of the second half, Gallimore lost several duels with Colby’s Lindsey McKenna. As part of her five-goal performance, McKenna began the second half with four consecutive goals, putting Colby in charge at 11-7.

Gabby Horner and Annie Artz each scored for the Jumbos, but Eddy made it 12-9 when she rushed the net on the right side and sneaked in a shot. Tufts was undaunted, and came back with four straight goals to take a 13-12 lead when Artz sent one home with 10:47 to go.

“We made a couple adjustments on the defensive end, and I think it was really a belief in our kids to take care of the game,” Farrell said.

“We did really well at the beginning of the second half, and we probably got a little bit complacent, and opened the door,” Henning said. “By us opening up that door, then they were able to go take advantage, and then we lost our momentum.”

Eddy made a superb play to tie the game, taking a pass from Abby Hatch, spinning, and bouncing off three defenders before scoring the goal. But speedy Brigid Bowser took advantage of a Colby defensive breakdown to give the Jumbos a 14-13 lead with 7:19 remaining.

About a minute later, Horner drew a whistle and followed through with the shot for a goal that was disallowed. Horner ended up with a free position shot instead, and Tufts held the ball for nearly four more minutes before Artz got free in front and Bowser found her for a 15-13 lead.

“They had a lot of fight in them. They didn’t give up,” Henning said. “We had decent stances on defense, but we didn’t come up with the ball. So it gave them a lot of second and third opportunities, which a good team will capitalize on, and they’re a good team.”

Colby’s Gemma Bready won the ensuing draw control, and Eddy found the net again with 1:31 to play. But Bowser scooped up the draw control for Tufts, and Kelley Cohen fed Caroline Ross for a goal into an empty net with just 23 seconds left.

The Mules host Husson on Monday and Connecticut College on Saturday. Then it’s on to Salisbury, Md. to take on Salisbury University, the defending national champion and No. 1 team in the country, on March 26.

“We have a lot of talent,” Henning said. “We’re healthy, and I’m looking forward to what will come. That’s the beauty of having another game. You kind of keep going.”

Matt DiFilippo — 861-9243mdifilippo@centralmaine.comTwitter: @Matt_DiFilippo