Tufts (2-0) came out firing on all cylinders to start their season, beating Emerson (1-3) 86-83 on Friday and then thrashing the Wentworth Institute of Technology (1-3) 86-62 Saturday in Tufts’ home opener at Cousens Gym. The high tempo of the offense has already increased scoring numbers from last year, when the team averaged just 67.6 points per game. Senior tri-captain guard Ryan Spadaford and junior tri-captain center Tom Palleschi led Tufts against Emerson, with Spadaford recording a double-double.
Even off the back of a good win, the Jumbos did not take the fact that they were playing a weaker opponent for granted.
“We knew [Wentworth] was going to come out hard,” assistant coach Derek Retos said. “They’re always well-coached and well-prepared, so our goal was to match their intensity and exceed it, and I thought we did a good job of that at some points in the game.”
Tufts’ high-pressure defense led to a Wentworth turnover on the very first possession. After a brief period during which both teams struggled to score, the Jumbos launched a barrage of 3s and jumped out to a 16-4 lead, capped by a triple from sophomore guard Vincent Pace. This quickly led to a Leopards timeout. The Jumbos did not look back for the remainder of the game.
The team’s high pressure man defense did not always work to Tufts’ advantage, however. Even though the Wentworth forwards were similarly matched to Tufts’ guards, Wentworth was able to overpower some of the weaker defenders. Sophomore forward Jason Ganley gained 20 points for Wentworth and often was the spark of Wentworth’s offense.
Wentworth’s lack of height showed on the defensive end as well. Both the Leopards’ forwards stand at just 6’5”, while Palleschi stands at 6’8.” The rest of the Jumbos starters range from 6’3” to 6’5.” Wentworth played a 1-3-1 zone defense for most of the game to try to neutralize Palleschi’s effectiveness and slow down the rapid pace of Tufts’ offense, but rotations and double teams on Palleschi proved to be a bad strategy, since the junior center showed good skill in finding open teammates for 3-pointers. Palleschi ended the game with three assists.
“Doubling the post is typically our adjustment to playing against a really good post player,” Wentworth coach Arlen Galloway said. “We knew going in that [Palleschi] is really smart and a great passer and that they’d be ready. We didn’t really have any adjustment after he started finding the open shooter, so we let it go after that.”
Tufts’ fast pace did not leave much room for Wentworth to get back into the game, but with several minutes left in the halfthe Jumbos started settling for 3-pointers and did not make many of them. A pair of Wentworth 3s pulled them to within 14 with a little over seven minutes to go in the half, but junior guard Tarik Smith finally pulled Tufts out of its shooting slump with two minutes to go, making a 3 to extend Tufts lead to 41-21.
In addition to his 3s, Smith created what was undoubtedly the play of the game at the end of the first half. Off a Wentworth turnover, Smith handled a 3-on-1 break for Tufts, and ended it with a lob to Pace for an emphatic alley-oop dunk that set fans on their feet. Smith led Tufts at halftime with nine points and ended the game with 12.
Tufts coasted in the second half and never allowed Wentworth to get closer than 18 points. Wentworth drew many fouls on Tufts, including two offensive fouls at the beginning of the half, and this led to the bench players getting more minutes. The Tufts bench outscored Wentworth’s bench 40-14. Second-chance points also played a big role in the win. Junior center Drew Madsen led the Jumbos with 11 rebounds, seven of which were offensive, which led to 19 second-chance points, compared to the Leopards’ five.
The game against Emerson was far more difficult for Tufts. Spadaford had a career day, scoring 20 points and grabbing 10 rebounds to lead the Jumbos. Only six of those points came from distance, although he attempted nine during the game. Palleschi also played a significant role, stuffing the stat sheet with 17 points, seven rebounds, five assists and three blocks.
After leading the first half 40-34, aided by 11 free-throws in the half, Tufts fell behind 57-56 with 10 minutes left in the second half. Palleschi led the Jumbo response, scoring to regain the lead before grabbing two rebounds, which led to scores by Pace and Spadaford.
Three-pointers once again proved to be Tufts’ advantage as they hit three to go up by nine with 4:54 left. Emerson, however, continued to pressure Tufts until the last minute. Down by seven with 35 seconds left, Emerson sophomore guard Michael Sheng was fouled while shooting a 3-pointer and sunk all of his free throws. Moments later, an and-one and another 3-pointer had Emerson within touching distance, at 85-83.
Free throws, one of the Jumbos’ strong points throughout the game, proved to be the Lions’ undoing, with Smith sinking one to increase the lead to 86-83 with five seconds left. A desperate charge up the court for Emerson led to an offensive foul that ended the game, with Tufts edging out a win 86-83.
Although Tufts played excellent defense against Wentworth, holding them to 26.7 percent shooting in the first half, the high-pressure style seemed to affect Emerson less, who shot at 46.3 percent. A potential danger for the Jumbos as they move forward could be too many attempted 3-pointers. The offense seems happy to move the ball around the perimeter, but sometimes lacks penetration, which leads to 3s as the shot clock is winding down. This was the case a few times against both Wentworth and Emerson.
“We’re not too worried about that at this point in the season,” Retos said. “We did a great job defensively, which can compensate for missed shots, so we focused on that. We guarded them really well, and were able to overcome those missed shots. We’ll keep taking those shots, and we’ll make them even more down the stretch. We’re confident in our guys shooting the ball.”
This Tuesday, Tufts will play MIT at home — a matchup they lost last year. The team is hoping to build on the momentum gathered in these first two wins and keep their hot start going.