The goal for the 17-5 Jumbos has been clear all year: make it to the NCAA tournament, and hopefully make a deep run. After this weekend’s games, that goal may already be out of reach.
Tufts went into the weekend knowing it would be the biggest challenge of the season so far, with a game against the top team in the conference, Trinity, on Friday night, followed up by a game against the NESCAC’s No. 2 team, Amherst. The Jumbos pulled off a big upset win over the Amherst Lord Jeffs on Saturday to stay near the top of the NESCAC, but it came only after falling to the Trinity Bantams on Friday in a tough blow to their NCAA hopes.
Tufts’ Saturday victory against NESCAC rival and nationally No. 11 Amherst ended with an 84-73 win. The game was well played by both teams, as neither turned the ball over more than seven times.
The star of the game for the Jumbos was junior tri-captain Tom Palleschi, who has been on a hot streak over the past four games, averaging over 20 points per game during that stretch. Palleschi put up 20 points on the night to lead his team in scoring. As has been common for the Jumbos, the bench was an important factor in their win, adding 18 to the scoreboard.
“My team is putting me in a good position to get the ball in scoring areas,” Palleschi said. “[They’re] getting me the ball when I’m open, so that’s really a testament to them. We normally have very balanced scoring, which is how we’ve seen most of our success. I don’t think we’ve had very many games this year where sharing the ball has been really lopsided. When we work together as a team we put ourselves in a good position to win the game.”
The Jumbos pulled out to an early lead in the game, going up 15-9 early in the first half and refusing to give up that lead for the remainder of the game. Tufts managed to hold onto that lead with its strong shooting, as it usually does, shooting 43.7 percent from the field.
The game was a must-win for Tufts, as it moved to 6-3 in NESCAC play; more importantly, it needed to rebound from a tough loss Friday to maintain any chance of reaching the NESCAC championship and the NCAA tournament.
“Hopefully we’ll get some momentum going,” sophomore guard Vincent Pace said, “With that game and these next two games, hopefully we can go on a bit of [a] run and go into the NESCAC tournament and maybe even get a home game.”
Friday’s game was another conference contest, as the Jumbos fell to the Bantams 88-76. The game was close throughout thanks to strong showings from Palleschi, who put up 25 points to again lead his team, and from Trinity senior Shay Ajayi, whose 26 points and 16 rebounds led both teams.
With just 10 minutes left in the game, the score was tied 58-58, but the Bantams managed a 12-1 run to build a lead they would maintain for the rest of the game.
“This weekend was obviously big,” Palleschi said, “especially because if we won both we would be first in the league right now. Losing to Trinity is tough, but they’re a good team; it was easily the hardest game we’ve played all year. Beating Amherst was pretty big. We knew that if we got ahead of them early we could probably keep that lead throughout; we still think that we put ourselves in a good position to, if not win NESCACs, get an at-large bid [into the NCAA tournament].”
The Jumbos fell in large part due to their weak shooting on the night. Traditionally a very strong team from the field, the Jumbos shot only 33.3 percent, compared to the Bantams 53.4 percent from the field. Trinity also received an incredible 49 points from their bench players, several of whom put up double digit points.
“We know we’ve just got to stick together,” Pace said. “[We need to] keep playing the way we know how. We strayed away from the way we’ve been playing all year against Trinity. We’ve just got to come back and play our game.”
With five losses, the Jumbos will need to win their final two games to have any chance of making a run at the NCAA tournament. The Jumbos will be looking to close off the season strong tonight at Pine Manor and in their final conference match-up of the season at Williams on Friday, a match-up that will determine their seed in the postseason NESCAC tournament. The Jumbos, with high postseason aspirations, currently sit at fourth in the conference.
“There are a bunch of small details we need to clean up [going into the last two games],” Pace said. “There are a few things we need to fine tune. Chemistry is great on the team; [right now] we’re winning, so that helps a lot. It’s been a lot of fun; it’s been a great year so far.”