Heading into this past weekend with a three-game winning streak, the men’s basketball team looked to solidify its place in the top half of the NESCAC standings with matchups against the conference’s two worst teams, Connecticut College and Wesleyan. A Tufts sweep would have guaranteed a spot in the NESCAC playoffs for the first time since the 2006-07 season. Coming away empty-handed would have thrown that playoff spot into jeopardy.
But neither of these extremes happened. The Jumbos split the weekend with a 64-53 loss to the Camels on Friday night and a bounce-back 79-65 win over the Cardinals on Saturday, a crucial win for their post-season hopes.
“Obviously we wanted two [wins], but we knew that it was huge to get at least one,” sophomore forward Scott Anderson said. “We don’t want to make it like that. We want to be able to get another win in the future to solidify our spot, and we couldn’t have done that without getting at least one this weekend.”
The Jumbos also understand the lessons they can take away from Friday night’s loss to Conn. College: There is no time for off days in the NESCAC, especially when a playoff appearance is on the line.
“Against any NESCAC team, if you don’t play your best game you’re going to lose; it’s that simple,” junior tri-captain James Long said. “Every opponent you have to go in and be focused against and make sure you’re running stuff and playing defense and that’s really the only way you’re going to get a win.”
Saturday’s victory over the Cardinals was keyed by an effort to remedy many of the mistakes made on Friday night: a lack of focus, a lack of intensity and failure to stick to a game plan.
“We said going in, ‘We have to play our game — play Tufts basketball,'” Anderson said. “We can’t play down to their level. From the get-go, against Wesleyan we came out with a lot of fire and it worked out for us.”
The Jumbos jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead and never looked back, leading by as many as 14 in the first half before a late Wesleyan run cut the lead to seven at halftime. But Tufts regained control after the break, showing the kind of efficiency on offense that was not present on Friday night.
“A lot of plays that we were running against Connecticut were working better against Wesleyan,” Anderson said. “Instead of shooting outside like we did against Connecticut, we were working it inside out. On all of our plays, we were running it all the way through. We would get it into a post guy and he would pass it back out. Everyone was touching the ball more and everyone was more active.”
The Jumbos shot 61 percent from the field in the second half against Wesleyan, and their lead ballooned to 25 points, at 63-38, with just under nine minutes to play. Ball movement was key for Tufts, as the Jumbos notched 20 assists as a team and finished the game shooting just under 56 percent from the field, including 9-for-14 from three-point range.
“On Saturday we made it a focus to get back to moving the ball, going inside out, getting post touches,” Long said. “We ran the floor better, we got some fast break points. On Saturday, we tried to do everything we didn’t do well on Friday night.”
Junior guard Amauris Quezada continued his stellar shooting, finishing with 14 points, while Anderson had 13 points and five rebounds for the Jumbos. Contributions from the bench were also key for Tufts, as freshman guard Kwame Firempong continued his stellar all-around play, scoring four points, pulling down five boards and leading the team with seven assists.
“For a freshman to be playing that well is awesome,” Anderson said of Firempong. “He provides so much spark, both on offense and defense. He’s been playing real well the past two weeks and the entire year.”
Though everything was running smoothly on Saturday afternoon, the scene at Cousens Gym less than 24 hours prior was anything but, when Conn. College erased a 10-point halftime deficit, outscored Tufts by 21 in the second half, and left the Jumbos with a bitter taste in their mouths.
“We just lost focus,” Anderson said. “We took them lightly. It’s been a reoccurring thing for us. We were up 15 against Middlebury; we were up 20 against Plymouth State. We come into games and we play well in the first half but come out flat in the second half. It’s all about focus really. We’re a young team and we have to figure out how to, instead of playing at the level of a worse team we’re playing, to step it up a notch and step on their throats.”
Tufts held the Camels to just 29 percent shooting in the first half, yet were plagued by sloppy play, committing 11 turnovers. While Conn. College was able to turn around its offensive mistakes, Tufts was unable to overcome their own. And when the Camels made a run in the second half, the Jumbos had no response.
“We had a ten point lead, but I don’t think anyone thought we were playing as well as we could have been,” Long said. “Then in the second half, they just kind of stuck around and then made a run and we couldn’t really do anything.”
The first run came early in the second half, with the Camels outscoring Tufts 14-4 over a six-minute stretch to take their first lead since the opening minutes of the game. The second run — this one even more devastating — occurred after Tufts had cut the Conn. College lead back to one with just over five minutes remaining. The Camels responded by scoring the next 11 straight points, putting the game away.
Despite the defeat Friday night, the Jumbos (10-9 overall, 3-3 NESCAC) are still in prime position to make the NESCAC tournament and still very much in the running to host an opening-round playoff game. Before a pair of crucial NESCAC match-ups this weekend at Trinity and Amherst, Tufts hosts a struggling UMass-Boston team tonight. While the Beacons come into the game having lost seven of their last nine, the Jumbos learned this weekend not to take any team lightly.
“We know we have to take one game at a time,” Anderson said. “We can’t be focused on Trinity and Amherst. UMass-Boston is going to be a good team and we know that so we just have to come out and focus on them.”