Men’s basketball wins first ever NCAA Regional at Cousens

Tufts senior tri-captain guard Ryan Spadaford drives to the hoop through two Skidmore defenders in the men's basketball 88-80 victory over Skidmore on Saturday. Laura de Armas / The Tufts Daily

Men’s basketball survived a thrilling weekend of games to win the first NCAA Div. III Regional they’ve ever hosted at Cousens Gym and made it to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2006. Tufts staved off a late Southern Vermont rally on Friday night to win 78-76 before coming back against Skidmore in the second round on Saturday night to take the 88-80 victory.

The Jumbos have faced their share of adversity this season, but no moment was more terrifying for the team than when the team’s leading scorer, sophomore Vincent Pace, went down just seconds into Friday night’s contest.

On the first possession of the game, Pace took a pass from junior point guard Tarik Smith and attempted an inside move to drive to the hoop in traffic. Going for the layup over several Southern Vermont defenders, he missed and landed awkwardly. While play continued, Pace was down writhing on the ground clutching his leg.

“That was a punch to the gut when he went down,” coach Bob Sheldon said. “I felt bad for him; he’s been having some great games coming into it and I think he was really excited to make his mark in the NCAA tournament.”

The game started off rocky for Tufts, who fell behind early by six points to Southern Vermont after the shock of losing Pace in first 20 seconds. Still, the Jumbos managed to come back to take the lead in the first half and stay ahead to win 78-76 despite the injury of Pace, which kept him out of action the rest of the weekend and which will likely sideline him next weekend.

Always a leading contributor on both sides of the court, junior center tri-captain Tom Palleschi was the go-to player on offense with Pace out. Palleschi worked his way inside consistently, fighting for points in the paint. He also dominated the paint on the defensive side of the ball. Palleschi finished with 17 points, five rebounds and an astounding eight blocks to deny several Mountaineer layups at critical moments and fire up his team and the crowd.

“We try to go through Tom,” Sheldon said. “We try to give him a touch on offense, and he’s a great passer but we move around him. He’s our anchor on defense. Part of the reason we get out there and can chase guys off the three-point line is because we know Tom is back there.”

The rest of the offense also stepped up as the Jumbos jumped out to an 11-point lead midway through the second half. The lead was far from safe, though, as the Mountaineers managed to tie the game up at 71 with just 2:28 left to play.

Southern Vermont managed to take a 74-73 lead with 1:03 to play with a big three-pointer, but senior tri-captain Stephen Haladyna responded seconds later on the other end of the court, draining a clutch three to put Tufts back in the lead with 46 seconds left. The Mountaineers were forced to repeatedly foul the Jumbos, giving the team the opportunity to grow their lead, but the Jumbos were unable to put the game away, only making two of their six free throws in the last 20 seconds of the game.

Southern Vermont hit a pair of free throws with just nine seconds remaining to pull within one, 77-76, but Haladyna was quickly fouled and hit one of his two free throws with six seconds left. The Mountaineers got the rebound of his second missed free throw and barely had time to attempt the game winning three-pointer, which bounced off the backboard and sealed the Jumbos’ 78-76 win. Haladyna put up a career-high 24 points to go along with 10 rebounds.

“Some people stepped up that needed to step up,” Sheldon said. “Hal [Stephen Haladyna] carried us through the whole game. He made big shot after big shot. It wasn’t pretty but when your leading scorer goes down 30 seconds into the game, there’s going to be some time to adjust.”

Tufts then faced off against Skidmore, who had beaten Franklin and Marshall on Friday. With Pace still out due to injury, sophomore guard Ben Engvall, who has been the team’s sixth man throughout the year, started in his place.

Both offenses came out firing, but Skidmore soon broke away from the hosts. A timely three for the Thoroughbreds extended their first half lead to 12 points with 5:18 remaining in the first half. The Jumbos would answer back before going into the locker room, though, cutting the deficit at the half to 47-43.

“We wanted to remain poised throughout,” Palleschi said. “We knew that would win us the game, that’s what would keep us in the tournament. We wanted to stick to our game, and they knew that; they wanted to have us play at their pace, but we slowed it down and executed our game plan.”

The Jumbos came out of the gate aggressively in the second half, taking the lead back just three minutes in with a layup from Spadaford and a jumper from Palleschi.

The lead would go back and forth for a few minutes, but a series of three-pointers, including four key threes from first-year guard Ethan Feldman, put Tufts up and kick-started its run. With the injury to Pace, Feldman stepped up off the bench to make big contributions on the weekend, draining a pair of threes on Friday as part of a 10-point showing and going four for five from downtown on Saturday while putting up a career-high 14 points.

With a three from junior guard Tarik Smith, the Jumbos took a 10-point lead with 4:12 to play, the largest their lead would be during the contest. Although Skidmore did all they could to overcome that lead, Tufts held on for the 88-80 victory. Skidmore’s first-year guard Edvinas Rupkus was especially impressive, put up a game high 28 points to go along with eight rebounds.

For the Jumbos, Palleschi scored 19 to go along with 12 rebounds and five blocks. Haladyna put up 18 points and seven rebounds, and Spadaford, Smith and Feldman all notched 14 points.

“We just kept chipping and we started making some shots,” Sheldon said. “Ethan Feldman came off the bench and had 14 points in 17 minutes. Coming into this weekend he’d only played 100 minutes total, and he had 27 minutes and 24 points [this weekend].”

With Pace out, Feldman knew he, as well as others off the bench, would be asked to step up.

“I knew I had to be ready,” Feldman said. “I’ve been playing a little bit here and there. It shows incredible trust from our guys, especially our seniors. [This game] could have been their last chance, and they’re trusting someone they haven’t played with much at all this year. It says a lot about them.”

Tufts will face off against Johnson and Wales on Friday at 7:30 p.m. Tufts was also selected to host the next round of the NCAA tournament, being one of four schools in the nation selected to host the Sectionals. Hosting at Cousens again will undoubtedly provide a significant advantage to a Jumbos team that acknowledged the benefit of strong fan support at their first two tournament games.

“It was awesome,” Palleschi said. “I’ve never seen that many people in our gym. Being able to feed off that energy, we thrive on that.”

The atmosphere was unlike anything the team had seen before.

“I’ve been at Tufts a long time,” Sheldon said. “That’s one of the top two or three crowds we’ve ever had. Not only in numbers, but they were loud.”