Jumbos start winning streak before match-ups against NESCAC leaders

Tufts guard Tarik Smith, (LA'17), charges through two UMass Dartmouth players in the men's basketball game against UMass Dartmouth on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016. Evan Sayles / The Tufts Daily

Coming off of a close win at Connecticut College, the team secured three consecutive double-digit wins ahead of this weekend, when they will face the only two teams ahead of them in the NESCAC standings. Tufts beat Newbury (2-18) away last Thursday to give Coach Bob Sheldon his 400th victory, only the 10th active coach in New England history to do so. Sheldon is Tufts’ all-time leader in wins, with a record of 402-293.

The Jumbos then handled the Bates Bobcats (10-10, 2-5 NESCAC) at home on Saturday by a score of 90-75 in a game during which the result was never in doubt. Finally, on Tuesday, Tufts registered another home win in a high-scoring shootout against UMass-Dartmouth (11-9), 101-82. These wins stretched their current streak to four games, leaving the Jumbos at 16-4 overall (5-2 NESCAC).

The challenge of the UMD game was how to stop senior guard Jordan Rezendes, who was coming off a 58-point performance in his last game.

“We wanted to pick him up full-court with Tarik [Smith] and make him work,” Sheldon said. “Once they started running him off picks, we tried to switch a big onto him to make him uncomfortable near the basket. We held him under his average, which was good. He’s so smooth.”

Although there was always a defensive player close to Rezendes, he scored 26 while dishing out 10 assists. His efforts were in vain, however, as Tufts put in a solid team effort on the way to their third triple-digit scoring performance of the year.

Both teams shot a high percentage to start, and the score was close for much of the first half. With 14 minutes to go, Tufts led 19-15 and slowly began stretching their lead. Offensive rebounds continued to be an issue, as one Corsair’s possession even resulted in four shots for UMD. But Tufts held firm, even when UMD implemented a press with 1:30 left in the half. The half ended on an emphatic dunk by sophomore guard Vincent Pace to put Tufts up 49-40.

Early second-half pressure resulted in back-to-back UMD timeouts, and the lead built to 59-44 with 17 minutes left in the game. The referees called a tight game, and fouls slowed the pace down until 11 minutes, when Rezendes hit a basket to cut Tufts’ lead to eight.

Not to be outdone, Pace began to take over the game. He scored nine consecutive points off two threes and an and-one, and senior tri-captain guard Ryan Spadaford added a deep three to put the game out of reach.

“I think Vinny had been down a bit [off his normal stat line] and decided he needed to go to work,” Sheldon said. “We have a big weekend coming up and he wanted to have a good game to kick him into the weekend.”

The final score of 101-82 was closer than the game actually was, with both teams clearing their benches. Pace ended the game with 27 points, nine rebounds and seven assists, leading Tufts in all categories except blocks.

Cousens Gym was crowded on Saturday to watch Tufts play host to Bates. The Bobcats featured a set of twin forwards, juniors Marcus and Malcolm Delpeche, measuring at 6’7” and 6’8” respectively. To counter their size advantage, Tufts implemented a zone defense for much of the first half. The team switched in and out of the zone throughout the whole game in response to Bates’ shooters, and kept Bates off-balance defensively, sometimes disguising their defense until the ball reached half-court and then switching looks.

“The [Delpeche] twins had size and athleticism, so the zone helped us match up against that,” sophomore guard Everett Dayton said. “But the zone isn’t necessarily just for matching up against bigger teams. It’s also to throw a different look at teams so they’re not as comfortable.”

Tufts opened the game strong and jumped out to a 22-9 lead with 10:59 to go in the first half, with the first Bates basket to end the run coming off a goaltending violation. Bates sophomore guard Justin Zukowski kept them in the game early, hitting a few threes to draw Tufts out of their zone and keep the score close. However, the Jumbos’ relentless defensive pressure led to multiple turnovers, and the four-guard set led by sophomore point guard Tarik Smith allowed the Jumbos to outpace their opponents on the break, resulting in easy transition buckets.

Though outmatched in size, junior tri-captain center Tom Palleschi wasn’t outmatched in skill. He dropped 24 in the game, scoring 14 of those in the game’s first 15 minutes. His blocks often led to fast breaks going the other way, and he notched five in the game. Bates’ senior guard Mike Boornazian did his best to keep his team in the game, matching Palleschi’s 24 points and adding 13 rebounds, but it wasn’t enough.

Tufts eased through the second half after leading by 18 at the break. When the pace of the game sped up, Tufts shifted back to the 2-3 zone to limit shots. While they were aggressive in running the floor in the second half, their offense was more patient in getting their points. Dayton hit a pull-up jumper and senior tri-captain guard Stephen Haladyna made an easy layup with 7:51 to go, putting the game out of reach at 73-46.

The Jumbos were out-rebounded in the game, 51-41, a result of their four-guard lineup. Of Bates’ rebounds, 22 came on the offensive end, and Bates converted 16 second-chance points. Allowing offensive rebounds has been a struggle for Tufts all season, but the effectiveness of the four guards on the break has outweighed any shortcomings on the boards.

The story of the game, however, came at the very end when Bates forward Mike Newton aggressively drove into the lane and bowled over sophomore guard Kene Adigwe. From the resulting scuffle, both players were given technical fouls, and the tone of what had been a fast-paced, physical game soured. The Jumbos walked off the court victorious 90-75.

Against the Newbury Nighthawks, the team grabbed the lead early and never came close to giving it up. The Jumbos seldom missed, shooting 10/18 from the three point line in the first half, ultimately gaining a 58-32 lead by halftime. Their dominance was so complete that a Newbury player, at one point, asked Spadaford if Tufts was Div. II or I. Spadaford had 11 points in the first half, and scored 21 in the game while recording five rebounds and two assists.

Palleschi also chipped in with six blocks in the game. Although the Nighthawks had two big men as tall as Palleschi – first-year center Kyle Joseph and junior forward Daray Ross – they couldn’t match Palleschi’s intensity, and combined for just six points throughout the course of the game.

Even though Newbury outscored Tufts in the second half, it wasn’t nearly enough. Tufts cooled off from three-point range but still maintained a healthy lead all the way through. Sophomore guards Ben Engvall and Dayton and first-year guard Ethan Feldman all scored in double digits off the bench for Tufts.

The sizeable advantage allowed Sheldon to play out his reserves, and every Jumbo on the roster but one scored in the game. The Jumbos coasted through the rest of the game, finally giving Sheldon his 400th win by a score of 99-78.

The momentum built up in the past week will be necessary as Tufts faces huge tests from Amherst and Trinity at home on Friday and Saturday. The team will prepare hard for the rest of the week for these games, which, coming near the end of the regular season, will decide the standings at top of the league.

“We’re focused. For the first time in a long time, our destiny is in our hands,” Sheldon said. “We play good enough defense to match up with anybody and we can score so well. We’re confident that we can win every game.”

The team always has good energy at home, an atmosphere that the Jumbos will have to take advantage of in the two upcoming games.

“It’s a huge advantage shooting on the same rims we practice on,” Haladyna said. “We like playing at home. Hopefully we can get a big crowd [for the weekend]. We can finish our season strong, because our team has a different mindset than past years. You can see it in our chemistry on and off the floor.”