Men’s basketball surges to first-ever Elite Eight matchup but falls to Amherst

Tufts guard Tarik Smith (LA’ '17), drives the ball down the court in the NCAA quarter finals game against Amherst on March 12, 2016. Laura de Armas / The Tufts Daily

Tufts men’s basketball ended a historic NCAA run Saturday night with a tough loss to NESCAC rival Amherst in an Elite Eight matchup at Cousens Gym. With a pair of close wins to open the NCAA tournament last weekend in the first NCAA games the men’s team has ever hosted at Cousens, the Jumbos made it to the Sweet 16 and were selected to host an NCAA Sectional for the first time in the program’s history.

Tufts squared off against No.12 Johnson and Wales on Friday, ready to leave its mark on the postseason. Despite the game being close in the first half, Tufts claimed a decisive 101-85 win to move on to face No.15 Amherst Saturday. Although the game remained tight throughout as both teams commanded the lead at different points, the former Lord Jeffs pulled away in the final minutes for the 86-73 victory.

With news of sophomore and leading scorer Vincent Pace’s torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) — an injury he sustained on the first play of the team’s first NCAA game on Friday, March 4 — the rest of the Jumbos all stepped up to overcome the loss of Pace’s offensive firepower.

“Our expectations were to go out there and play our game,” junior point guard Tarik Smith said. “Even though we were missing Vinny [Pace], we were expecting people to step up. [Sophomore] Everett [Dayton] played really well; pretty much the whole team stepped up.”

Friday’s contest opened with the teams trading points back and fourth, as the Jumbos slowly built a 14-point lead over the Wildcats just over 12 minutes into the first half. Johnson and Wales did not have its postseason dreams quashed so easily and closed the lead to 47-43 with Tufts leading going into the half.

With the Jumbos ahead, the Wildcats continued to play their full-court press defense. Johnson and Wales immediately pressured junior guard Tarik Smith, who most commonly takes the inbounding pass, in the backcourt. Smith frequently made the Wildcats pay for their press, looking for quick passes up court to teammates that often resulted in fast points for the Jumbos.

“Growing up in New York, I played against full-court press a lot,” Smith said. “It didn’t really bother me too much. There were some spots where I knew I could take advantage of the press.”

The Jumbos grew their lead to 15 points with eight minutes left in the contest, and that lead carried them to the Elite Eight. As the fan noise of a Cousens packed with Tufts students and alumni turned into a roar, the hosts maintained a double-digit lead for the final six minutes and coasted to the program’s first-ever NCAA Sectionals win.

“Once we broke the press in the middle there, getting the three-on-two, we just made plays,” senior Ryan Spadaford said. “Down the stretch that’s what we were able to do. We didn’t really have that many turnovers, so I think we handled [Johnson and Wales] pretty well.”

Both senior tri-captain guard Stephen Haladyna and Smith put up career highs in points in the contest, with 30 and 25 points respectively. Junior tri-captain Tom Palleschi notched 16 points to go along with seven blocks in the game. Palleschi was a defensive force for the Jumbos throughout their NCAA run. The 6 ft. 8 in. center averaged 3.90 blocked shots per game this season, second best in Div. III men’s basketball, and his blocking prowess was on display in the postseason with 22 blocks over the team’s four NCAA games.

 senior tri-captain guard Stephen Haladyna competes against an Amherst player in the NCAA quarter finals on March 12. (Laura de Armas / The Tufts Daily)

senior tri-captain guard Stephen Haladyna competes against an Amherst player in the NCAA quarter finals on March 12. (Laura de Armas / The Tufts Daily)

Buoyed by momentum and home court advantage, Tufts moved on to its first-ever Elite Eight matchup in a dramatic showdown with conference rival Amherst, undoubtedly the most familiar team for Tufts in the entire NCAA field. Amherst was also the team that ended Tufts’ previous best run in the NCAA tournament in 2006 when it defeated Tufts in overtime in the program’s first Sweet 16 matchup. 

The two teams had faced off twice prior to Saturday. The Jumbos beat the former Lord Jeffs 84-73 on Feb. 6 in an impressive showing at Cousens during the regular season, but the Purple and White were able to stay ahead of the Jumbos in the NESCAC tournament semifinals on Feb. 27 to take an 86-83 win. 

Amherst came into Saturday night’s contest coming off a win over the No.16 Babson in its Sweet 16 matchup Friday night, and the stage was set for the continuation of a fierce rivalry as it was the third meeting of Tufts and Amherst in just over a month. In an unfortunate end to the program’s furthest NCAA run in its history, Amherst stayed hot in the final minutes of Saturday night’s game while Tufts tired out, resulting in an 86-73 final score.

“We knew everything about them, tendencies and scouting,” Spadaford said. “We definitely had energy, but I think we did run out of steam in the last 10 minutes. Friday’s game was [played at] such a high pace. Everyone’s bodies were extremely exhausted. [Amherst] just ended up getting the better of the runs at the end.”

The Jumbos fell behind early and remained in a hole throughout the first half. Amherst led by as much as 12 in the half, but the lead shrank to five by halftime as the hosts clawed their way back into the game to make it 40-35.

Tufts came out of the locker room fired up and closed the gap in the first few minutes of the second half, going up 49-48 at the 14:58 mark on a three from sophomore guard Ben Engvall, who has been one of the team’s young players to step up in the tournament in place of Pace. The Jumbos continued to pour in buckets with the visitors responding to create a back-and-forth, adrenaline-pumping thriller of a second half. 

Tufts managed to jump ahead by more than one possession as the team built a 62-55 lead with 11:15 remaining. But Amherst’s strong shooters, who seemed to rarely miss even the tough shots as they made an impressive 47 percent of their field goals, did not allow Tufts to maintain that lead.

After trading leads for most of the last 10 minutes, the Jumbos eventually knotted up the score at 73 apiece as Palleschi sunk a three with 3:58 remaining. But the game quickly unraveled from there for Tufts as Amherst’s offense exploded and it ran out of steam.

Tufts tri-captain center Tom Palleschi (LA’17) drives the ball down the court on the NCAA quarter finals game against Amherst on March 12. (Laura de Armas / The Tufts Daily)

Tufts tri-captain center Tom Palleschi (LA’17) drives the ball down the court in the NCAA quarter finals game against Amherst on March 12. (Laura de Armas / The Tufts Daily)

The Purple and White scored 12 unanswered points as the Jumbos could not manage to make a basket in the final 3:58 as panic seemed to set in. The Jumbos went for hurried shots and layups in traffic that they could not execute. The visitors went on to claim the 86-73 win and a spot in the Final Four to deflate the enthusiasm of most of the 1,350 fans that packed Cousens Gym — most of whom were supporting Tufts.

The Jumbos were undeniably led by strong play from their captains in the game and throughout their NCAA run, as Haladyna and Palleschi both put up 20 points to lead the team in scoring on Saturday, both hitting 1,000 career points in the past few weeks. Spadaford showed his ferocity under the net on the defensive end, pulling down 11 boards in his final collegiate game.

“It’s great to end on such a high note,” Spadaford said. “I couldn’t ask for a better senior year than to make the Elite Eight with this team and to play at home, in front of our crowd for the last four games.”

The loss marks the end of the Jumbos’ season, though it has undoubtedly been one of the most successful seasons in program history. The Jumbos went 7-3 in the NESCAC and 23-7 overall while making it to the Elite Eight for the first time. Accompanied by the women’s team reaching its third straight NCAA Final Four this weekend, the success of the men’s team has also spurred a seemingly new interest in Tufts athletics.

While Tufts’ home games have featured more fans of the visiting team than Tufts fans much more often than they should, the play of the men’s basketball team attracted some of the largest crowds the Cousens Gym has ever seen, including a particularly enthusiastic and loud student section of “Cousens Crazies.” This, according to the team, was a major factor in their NCAA success. After a strong season, the Jumbos are in a good position to build on their young talent and ride this season’s momentum to the top of the NESCAC next year.