In one of the team’s closest and hardest-fought games of the season, Tufts fell to Amherst 86-83 in the conference semifinals Saturday evening, ending its NESCAC tournament run. Mitigating that defeat, however, was the news announced yesterday on the NCAA Div. III selection show that Tufts still received an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament and will be hosting games for the first two rounds of the tournament, starting this Friday.
In the loss, sophomore guard Vincent Pace put up an impressive 33 points — more than double the points any other player on either team — as part of an offensive outpouring that the Jumbos have come to expect from their top scorers. Senior tri-captain guard Ryan Spadaford put up 12 points and 11 rebounds, while junior tri-captain Tom Palleschi managed to score 11 points to go along with 12 rebounds and 4 blocks. The normally-prolific Tufts offense came just shy of matching its season average of 86.1 points per game.
Playing at Trinity on Saturday, the No. 3-seeded Jumbos fell behind against the No. 2-seeded ex-Lord Jeffs early but managed to take the lead midway through the first half. The Jumbos were able to stay ahead with late push and carry a lead into the half, leading by two at the buzzer.
“We struggled shooting for a little bit,” Pace said. “But we played our defense the right way. We struggled shooting, but we kept the game in the 80’s so our defense was pretty good.”
Amherst took back its lead early in the second half thanks to a layup from sophomore guard Jayde Dawson. The Purple & White maintained that lead throughout the second half and extended it to as many as nine points; though the Jumbos remained competitive and the game seemed much closer.
The Jumbos clawed their way back to erase that deficit, a run that was capped off when senior tri-captain Stephen Haladyna was fouled while making a layup and then sunk the foul shot, followed by a pair of free throws from Pace to tie the game at 79 apiece with 1:02 left on the game clock. Haladyna’s layup was more than just a clutch basket as it marked his 999th and 1,000th points for his career as a Jumbo, part of a 15-point outburst he contributed to the evening. Only 27 Jumbos have managed to score 1,000 career points before him.
“[Scoring my 1,000th point] means a lot,” Haladyna said. “It was kind of tough to get [that milestone] in a loss, but hopefully we get a bid today [said before the bids were announced], and this can be a big part of ending my senior year.”
The Purple & White responded quickly with a layup to break the tie with just under a minute to go, but Pace answered with a jumper of his own, leaving the game at 81-all at 39 seconds. But Amherst sophomore guard Riopel — who proved to be a critical contributor off the bench with 11 points — came through with a dagger, shooting a long three from the left corner to put his team up again 84-81 with 17 seconds left.
“The guy who we wanted to make beat us [Riopel] was the one who beat us,” Pace said. “You’ve got to give him credit; he made a tough shot.”
Pace immediately took the inbound and drove towards the basket to go for the dunk and was fouled with 11 seconds left but could not get the ball to go in for the and-one. He drained both of his shots, but still down by one, the Jumbos were forced to foul the Purple & White’s Dawson immediately on the inbound. Dawson made both free throws to increase Amherst’s lead to 86-83 with 11 seconds to go, setting up a final Jumbo play for a three to try to send the game to overtime. Senior tri-captain Ryan Spadaford got the ball on the left wing and got off the long shot before the buzzer, but it fell just short of the basket as time expired.
“Yeah, it was a tough loss, but I wouldn’t call it a bad loss,” Haladyna said. “I thought we played pretty well. We definitely played hard, with a lot of energy, but [Amherst] made more plays at the end that won them the game, but I didn’t think we played too bad.”
Amherst had six players finish in double digits, including junior center David George, who finished with 14 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks.
“We defended the three-point pretty well, which we wanted to do going into the game,” Haladyna said. “But I thought we didn’t have enough help-defense on their big man [George]. He played very well during the game, and I think we needed to play a little bit better defending him.”
“[Scoring 33] felt good,” Pace said. “I felt like I was playing for the team, and I didn’t really force too many shots. It was good to get a couple going because in the first half I struggled shooting from the outside so to get a couple in the second half was big. It was good to get us back in the game.”
Middlebury took the NESCAC title over Amherst on Sunday in a 70-58 win. The loss prevented the Jumbos from being able to compete again for their first NESCAC championship despite six straight trips to the conference postseason tournament, and the automatic berth into the NCAA tournament that comes with winning the NESCAC went to Middlebury.
Still, the Jumbos are well-positioned for a deep NCAA run with the bid they received. Tufts men’s basketball, for the first time in school history, will be hosting a regional at Cousens Gym this weekend. Immediately following a game between Franklin and Marshall College and Skidmore College on Friday evening, Tufts (20-6 overall) will face off against Southern Vermont (24-3 overall). The winners of the two games will play on Saturday to decide who goes on in the national tournament.
The NCAA tournament will provide a chance for the team’s senior class — which includes center Zach Roswald along with Haladyna and Spadaford — to make up for missing out on a NESCAC title this year.
“[This year] the chemistry with the guys has made it an awesome year,” Pace said. “I think that these seniors have started to form a culture around the team. I think we owe a lot of our success to that. They mean everything to the team, and we want to send them off the right way, so we’re going to play as hard as we can every single game.”
The action kicks off on Friday with the Franklin and Marshall and Skidmore game at 5:30 p.m. at Cousens followed by the Tufts and Southern Vermont College game at 7:30 p.m.