Cousens Gymnasium sits like a living piece of history on Tufts' campus. Opened in 1932, the brick field house looks like a scene out of the movie "Hoosiers" with a flair of the contemporary sprinkled in. Old-school wooden benches up high mix with more modern, retractable bleachers beside a cozy court that sinks down into the building like an amphitheater.
Hanging from the rafters above are a brand-new set of nine brown-and-blue banners, three of which double as conference championship banners and each signifying a deep run the women's basketball team has made into the Division III NCAA tournament: Sweet Sixteens, Elite Eights and four straight Final Four appearances, which included back-to-back trips to the national championship game.
The one thing missing? A national championship banner.
If this year's group of Jumbos, which finished with an undefeated regular season for the first time in program history and is the undisputed No. 1 team in the country, has anything to say, that may change. The 24-0 team starts play in the conference tournament on Saturday at home in Medford, Massachusetts.
"It's such an amazing experience to be so lucky to play every game and know that you have a target on your back," said senior Erica DeCandido, who has over 1,000 points in her four years with the Jumbos. She played in the national championship game as a freshman.
Her coach, Jill Pace, is in her first year at the helm. A former assistant, she was with the team when it made consecutive runs to the Final Four, including one that took them to the national championship game.
She's humble when asked if she anticipated her team would have this much success coming into the season.
"I don't think it wasn't in my expectations," Pace said. "But this team has done a really nice job kind of embracing getting better day-by-day, which is something I really believe in. And I think that's contributed to that ranking and our undefeated season right now."
Consistency and warding off complacency may be two of the hardest goals to achieve in sports, especially when you're in the middle of an undefeated season. But Tufts has done so through an insistence on focusing on each game and playing better than in the last outing. It helps that the Jumbos have to practice against the best team in the country: themselves.
"We go hard everyday against some of the best players in the country," Pace said. "Both from a starting group perspective and players who come off the bench. So no matter who's on what team, it's always competitive every day."
Pace also focuses on trying to continue to have fun, especially with a season as long and grueling as basketball's. She throws in new drills and competitions in practices. The Jumbos also put a big emphasis on staying healthy; the team does yoga together almost every week for mental and physical well-being.
It's all culminated in the best regular season Tufts has ever had. DeCandido said they're the type of team where anyone can get hot on any night. But the women's basketball team is far from the first group of Jumbos that has had immense success in recent years.
Since 2010, Tufts teams have won 11 national championships. The most recent were back-to-back title runs in men's soccer.
Athletic Director John Morris, who started at Tufts in 2015, said some of the early success the university started to have in athletics a little over 10 years ago — before Tufts teams had won even a single national title — needed more investment in facilities to continue.
Now, the Jumbos may have some of the best in the country. Maybe not coincidentally, trophies have started to pile up.
"Our Cousens Gym was renovated because our basketball team started to excel, but the court wasn't the right size to host [the NCAA tournament]," Morris said. "So they invested in facilities to help enable the athletics department and its teams to continue to succeed."
He called the Steve Tisch Sports and Fitness Center, a 42,000-square-foot facility that opened in 2012 with top-notch equipment and a film room for the teams, an "absolute game changer" in signaling how important athletics are at Tufts. There's also Carzo Cage, an indoor facility about the size of a gym that's recently been fitted with turf, allowing outdoor teams a place to practice year-round. It's the type of facility you'd expect to see at a top college in Division I.
Morris points to four key factors in Tufts' recent success: the prestige of the school and the students it attracts, the support of Tufts President Anthony Monaco since taking office in 2011, investment in facilities and a roster of talented coaches.
But the progress Tufts has made in sports has been a bit of a double-edged sword: In Morris' time at Tufts, three coaches have left to coach at Ivy League schools, which play in Division I.
One of those coaches is Carla Berube, who in her first season has led Princeton's women's basketball team to a top 25 ranking after spending 17 years at Tufts.
"It was a really difficult decision [to go to Princeton] because I love Tufts and loved the current team and knew we were on the verge of hopefully making another run at the national championship this coming season," Berube said. "So it was really hard to leave them."
She said when she got the job at Tufts, the expectations weren't to make NCAA tournament runs — at least in the beginning.
"But, of course, it was something in the back of my mind," she said. "If we could get the right student-athletes in there, I knew that was something that could happen down the road."
Berube helped make Tufts one of the best women's basketball programs in Division III. She experienced first-hand the excitement in the athletics department during Tufts' multiple championship runs in different sports.
"I do think that's what made Tufts athletics so successful, is the commitment to the student-athlete experience. Putting the money into the facilities," she said. "And then just having really passionate coaches that love their specific sports and can really relay that passion to their athletes. Tufts is a top private university in the country. They're getting student-athletes across the country interested in the school, and then you can find those great athletes as well in that pool."
The women's basketball team concluded its regular season with a 76-60 win over Williams College on Feb. 15, Senior Day. In a pregame ceremony, four-year players and their families took to the court, where the players received a framed jersey and flowers to commemorate their time at Tufts.
It was a game that was a little too close for comfort at times, with the Jumbos making some uncharacteristic mistakes and Williams looking like it might spoil the celebration and the chance for an undefeated season.
But the team clamped down defensively in the fourth quarter, holding the Ephs to only eight points.
Now the team will look to the post-season and host the New England Small College Athletic Conference tournament on their home court. Whoever wins that tournament, which Tufts did last year, may be a favorite to win the whole thing.
But the Jumbos have some competition. Along with Tufts, conference rivals Amherst (who has won three national titles since 2011) and Bowdoin (who was the runner-up the past two NCAA tournaments) are currently among the top six teams in the nation.
Tufts junior Emily Briggs, who has the second-best points per game average on the team behind DeCandido, said the competition in the NESCAC this season — and the team's success — have made conference play that much harder. Although they're undefeated, the final box scores in several games don't reflect just how close the contests were.
"I think teams in the past that haven't been as great are really good this year, and so it makes it more fun, honestly," Briggs said. "And obviously, it kind of makes us being undefeated feel, I guess, a little better, but I think it's just way more fun to play in."
The last time Tufts made the national championship game, in 2017, the Jumbos lost to Amherst.
Although the team philosophy of going game by game still holds true, and Tufts still has to get through its conference bracket before the national tournament, team leaders like DeCandido cannot help but keep their eyes on another shot at a national title.
"If we can walk away with championships and also the opportunity for our freshmen to be in a situation like that, that I was in freshman year, [it] would be such a great way to go out," DeCandido said.
When the Jumbos open up NESCAC tournament play on their home court, they'll be playing under those crisp new banners that serve as a reminder of how far Tufts has come athletically in such a short time.
But with room still left for a championship pennant, they also serve as a reminder of how far Tufts still has to go.