Josie Lee watched most of Tufts University’s Division III Final Four run last year from the bench. It was an unfamiliar vantage point for the former Cony star, but she was determined to make the most of it.

“Last year, I was just trying to take everything all in. I tried to learn from everybody,” she said.

Lee took what she learned and applied it to her offseason workouts, which helped her become a valuable contributor off the bench for the Jumbos as a 5-foot-7 sophomore guard.

With Tufts on the cusp of another New England Small College Athletic Conference championship, Lee saw her role change dramatically due to a season-ending ACL injury to starting guard Hannah Foley during the conference semifinals. Lee stepped into the starting lineup in the conference title game and showed her versatility with 12 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals in Tufts’ 68-52 win over Bowdoin.

Tufts coach Carla Berube said Lee did plenty during the regular season to earn the faith of her teammates and coaches that she could fill the void left when their third-leading scorer went down.

“She’s been playing well all season long,” Berube said. “She really stepped into a nice role for us and we really haven’t skipped a beat with her in the starting lineup.”

Berube didn’t have to worry about Lee being a reluctant shooter, as reserves often are when they find themselves thrust into the starting lineup.

“I knew having to start I was going to have to be more of an offensive threat, because Hannah is the best 3-point shooter in NESCAC,” Lee said.

Lee acknowledged she might not have been so willing to look for her offense under the same circumstances last year. But an offseason spent working on her shooting and in the weight room made her stronger and more confident as a sophomore.

“I really worked on my strength and my speed because a lot of these girls are bigger than me.” she said. “It’s made a huge difference. I don’t feel too intimidated in the post anymore.”

She wasn’t intimidated by the moment, either, which is why she led the Jumbos’ reserves in minutes and often found herself on the floor at the end of close games.

“She was a great spark,” Berube said. “Josie plays with a lot of energy. She has a great basketball IQ. She’s great at the defensive end of the floor and offensively she makes plays.”

That includes hitting the game-tying 3-pointer with three seconds left in regulation in a 73-66 overtime victory at Hamilton. After Foley got hurt in the NESCAC tournament against Williams, Lee hit a 3-pointer that helped set off a 13-2 game-ending run in a 53-40 win.

Lee only played two minutes in last year’s Final Four, near the end of the Jumbos’ loss to Wisconsin-Whitewater in the consolation game. But Berube is confident she will be just as relaxed as the players with significant experience when Tufts faces Thomas More College of Crestville Hills, Ky., on Friday in Grand Rapids, Mich.

“She’s been in some big games for us, been a big part of those games and been in the end of some tight games,” she said. “Even though she didn’t get a lot of minutes at the Final Four last year, she knows what that stage is like.”

The Jumbos (30-1) are ranked No. 5 in the nation and have won 22 in a row. Their semifinal foe is a formidable one. Thomas More is ranked No. 1 in Division III with a 31-0 record and has the third-highest scoring offense in the nation (86.3 points per game). It leads the country in average margin of victory at an astounding 33.9 ppg.

Tufts boasts the nation’s top-ranked defense (46.7 ppg) coming off one of its best games of the year. The Jumbos held FDU-Florham, the team that beat them in last year’s national semifinal and the defending national champions, more than 30 points below its scoring average in their 58-52 quarterfinal win last Saturday.

It will take a similar defensive effort for the Jumbos to advance to the national championship game, Lee said.

“We have to really focus on keeping our defensive intensity up and make some big shots,” said Lee, an economics major.

“Having been to the Final Four before, we know what the level of play is going to be,” she said. “This year, our goal is to win the championship.”

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