The big stage doesn’t faze Josie Lee and the Tufts University women’s basketball team. Not anymore.
There was a time when it did. When the increase in attention after reaching the Division III women’s Final Four caught Lee and her teammates off guard. They weren’t used to the cameras, the interviews or the scheduled events, one after another.
“I remember my freshman year, when we first made it to the Final Four, we thought every little thing was amazing,” Lee said. “All this press coverage and cameras on us was so special.”
Four straight trips to that stage, however, can do wonders for one’s concentration.
“It’s definitely an advantage that we have experienced this before,” Lee said. “We do appreciate it just as much. … There’s various press conferences, banquets, some socials where we can mingle with the other teams. Honestly, it’s just a great experience.
“However, we don’t get too excited, and we really focus on the games we have ahead of us.”
Good thing, too. After all, Lee and the Jumbos have a job to do. Tufts is back in the Final Four, chasing the national title that eluded it in three previous trips to the national semifinals. The Jumbos (29-2) lost in the semifinals the first two years but reached the final last year, and Lee, an Augusta native and former Cony High School star, said the team is a little more driven to make that extra, final step.
“Obviously it’s an accomplishment every year to make it to the final four, as well as the national championship last year,” said Lee, whose team opens tonight against St. Thomas (Minn.) in Grand Rapids, Mich. “However, there’s definitely still this feeling of hunger and a little bit of (dissatisfaction) in that we still have work to accomplish in order to get that national championship and come out on top.”
“I think the team has some unfinished business left,” Tufts coach Carla Berube added. “The seniors have one weekend left of basketball in their career. The team is playing for them, and they’ve been very focused.”
One of those seniors, Lee has been a key part of helping Tufts develop into one of Division III’s most consistent winners. Her stats are modest, with her scoring average at 4.6 points per game — “I wouldn’t say I’m much of an offensive threat,” she admitted — but she has started 30 of 31 games, all while bringing a reliable, unwavering defensive ability to her guard position.
“Josie’s one of our loudest players, brings a ton of energy every single day,” Berube said. “She just gets the job done on the defensive end. She’s always defending our opponent’s best perimeter threat. She also does a lot in stats that aren’t in the stat sheet, like taking charges and getting deflections.”
It’s nothing new — Lee says defense has always been her game, dating back even to middle school.
“I do like guarding the ball and putting a lot of pressure on the person who has the ball, making sure my hands are in their face at all times,” she said. “However, I also like the whole spatial aspect of it. Making sure you’re always denying one pass away or in help when the ball is two passes away, and being able to see the flow of the game.”
That understanding of the game has helped her transition into becoming one of the team’s vocal leaders. She’s been a captain the past two seasons, has made the national semifinals each year of her career and has become the player responsible for getting the most out of her teammates, whether it be in a practice with nobody watching or a tournament game with the season on the line.
“Although she’s one of the loudest on the court, I think she’s a calming presence out there,” Berube said. “She’s got a very high basketball I.Q., since the day she stepped on our campus.”
Lee said she takes her leadership responsibilities seriously, and has crafted it into being part of her game.
“I really put a lot of focus in making sure everyone is always putting their best work out there and always playing at a very high level,” she said. “I think I’ve really stepped into a place as a vocal leader.”
It’s become easier this year. As a junior, Lee had no trouble serving as a mentor to underclassmen but still was unsure how to do the same with seniors. As a senior herself this season, she’s been able to communicate freely with all of her teammates.
“Being a junior captain, I obviously still respected all the other seniors who weren’t captains,” she said. “This year is really making sure the whole team is focused and ready to go.”
That leadership ability will be tested now, with two undefeated teams (St. Thomas and Amherst, both 27-0) standing in the way of a national championship. But while Tufts has struggled to break through in these games, Lee said those losses have helped sharpen the Jumbos’ knowledge of what it will take to win them.
“We know that we don’t have to play outside ourselves to win the following games that we’re about to play,” she said.
There’s the benefit of that experience again, and Tufts won’t have to search long for motivation either.
“I know, especially for the upperclassmen, we still have that bitter taste from last year’s national championship still in our mouths,” Lee said. “That definitely does feed into our hunger and desire to do better this year.”
Drew Bonifant — 621-5638