Jumbos eyeing deep NESCAC tournament runs

Tufts tri-captain and guard Nicole Brooks (LA'16) goes up to block Hamilton during the first half of the Tufts women's basketball game against Hamilton in Cousens Gym on Saturday, Jan. 16. Nicholas Pfosi / The Tufts Daily Archive

With wins against Williams in the final game of the season, both the No. 19 men’s and No. 6 women’s basketball teams secured home-court advantage for the first few rounds of the NESCAC tournament. Both teams play at Cousens Gym tomorrow with the women taking on Middlebury at 2 p.m. and the men following with a rematch against Williams at 4 p.m.

The women’s team finishes on top of the conference, undefeated at 10-0 (21-2 overall) for the third straight year. They are going into the tournament as undoubtedly the favorite, with home-court advantage locked up all the way to the finals should they make it that far. However, both of their losses went to conference opponents the Conn. College Camels and the Bowdoin Polar Bears in non-conference games early in the season. Though the Jumbos later avenged both of those losses in conference play, defeating Bowdoin on the road by three points and then authoritatively handling Conn. College by nine at home, those teams will go into the tournament knowing that Tufts can be beaten.

Still, the rest of the NESCAC’s task of taking down the back-to-back conference champion Jumbos will not be made easier by the fact that the team has won 16 straight games and is undefeated at home this season.

“A lot of people don’t realize how huge home-court advantage is,” junior tri-captain guard Josie Lee said. “We’re comfortable in our own gym. We’ve been shooting on these hoops all year, and when you have the fans backing you and everything, it helps a lot.”

The team will look to play the same smothering defense that has limited opponents all year. The team features NESCAC leaders in sophomore forward Melissa Baptista, who notches 1.9 blocks along with 1.8 steals per game. Junior center Michela North is not far off from her mark, blocking 1.5 shots per contest. Sophomore guard Lauren Dillon is among the league leaders in steals, snatching 2.1 per game, only second behind Kate Kerrigan of Bowdoin.

Though these individual contributions are certainly significant, it is the team’s cohesiveness on defense that has been a factor all year. They force 20.5 turnovers per game, the best in the NESCAC, while turning the ball over only 13.8 times per game — again, the best in the NESCAC. While the team is just seventh in the conference in scoring, with 60 points per game, the team often does not need that many points to win. Their highest-scoring opponent scored 55, and that was in the Jumbos’ loss to the Camels. In fact, Tufts has allowed 50 points only five times all season.

Though the team is approaching the tournament with a “one game at a time” mindset, they still look forward to certain potential rival matchups.

“We’re focused on Middlebury right now, but we always love to play [conference runner-up] Amherst and Bowdoin,” Lee said. “Those are our rivals, and we always are fired up to play them.”

Amherst, whose only NESCAC loss came against Tufts on Feb. 6 by just one point, is the main competition in the tournament, and if those teams match up in the championship, it will certainly be a contest to remember.

Ultimately, the team’s goal is not just to reach the Final Four of the NCAA tournament for the third year in a row, but to break their previous threshold and get a national championship for the school, which would be the first in team history. If they continue to play their solid team defense, as well as get solid offensive contributions from North, their leading scorer, and from senior captain Emma Roberson and Baptista, they can certainly expect a deep run not just in the NESCAC tournament but in the NCAA tournament as well.

The men’s team will open the tournament with a rematch from last weekend, when they beat Williams away by a score of 77-73. The game was an anomaly on the season — Tufts’ normally high-powered offense put up a relatively low 40.3 percent shooting percentage, and Williams nearly won the game with a few timely shots as the clock ticked down. It was only clutch free-throw shooting that saved Tufts from slipping down a spot in the conference standings and missing out on a home playoff game to start the tournament.

“We won [the Williams game] but we didn’t play well by our standards,” junior tri-captain center Tom Palleschi said. “Our communication was horrible and we didn’t shoot well. I think being at home, with our rims, will help with our communication and shots going in. Hopefully the four-point win will turn into a larger margin.”

The No. 19 Jumbos are looking the best they have in years and can be reasonably sure of an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, but they still cannot take anything for granted. An early exit in the tournament could mean a loss of a spot, while winning the NESCAC tournament would guarantee a bid.

The team’s success this year has come from the new style that coach Bob Sheldon implemented — surrounding the big man Palleschi with four quick and athletic guards who are more than willing to run the floor and crash the boards. The team leads the NESCAC with 86.6 points per game, and anyone who has seen the Jumbos play knows that when the team can get out and run in transition, easy points and solid wins are sure to follow.

Beyond its offensive prowess, Tufts also leads the NESCAC in blocks, with 5.3 per game. Palleschi himself leads the league with 3.5 per game, while junior center Drew Madsen and sophomore guard Vincent Pace are both in the top 20, each with 0.6 per game. Despite the small-ball lineup, the team is also second in the league in rebounds. The hustle for rebounds seems to come as a result of players buying into the system that coach Sheldon has implemented, and it certainly has led to success.

“Our rebounding numbers are like that because of hustle,” Palleschi said. “[Senior tri-captain guard Ryan Spadaford], it’s just his will to get every rebound he can. He’s probably the best rebounder on our team — he works so hard for every board.”

The team will continue to stick to their game plan as they strive for success in the tournament. Running in transition, getting quick offense if fast break points aren’t there and sharing the ball have all played big roles in the team’s success this season. When multiple players score in double digits, the Jumbos usually come out on top. This is a testament to the unselfish nature of the team. Even when one player has had an off day, the rest of the team has generally picked up the slack.

“My hot streak has been because my teammates find me when I’m open,” Palleschi said. “When we get ball reversals, run, and stick to our core values, we’ll be fine. In each of our losses, we’ve gotten away from what makes us a team and tied to play too much one-on-one.”

The biggest challenge of the tournament is a potential rematch in the championship against Trinity (9-1), the top team in the NESCAC this season. The Bantams lack any one specific strength, which the Jumbos have been good at identifying and neutralizing in their opponents all year, and instead boast a number of high-profile players under their season averages. They also grab lots of offensive rebounds — another vulnerability for the Jumbos’ relatively short lineup.

Both Jumbos teams will approach their games with the same mentalities and game plans that have carried them to success all season. If they continue to perform as they have, it is reasonable to expect deep runs into the NESCAC tournament and more thrilling games at Cousens Gym.