Jumbos down Ephs to earn No. 1 seed in NESCAC for first time in program history

Senior Tarik Smith runs with the ball on the court during the men's basketball game against Williams College on Feb.. 10. (Angelie Xiong / The Tufts Daily)

The men’s basketball team recorded a resounding win over Williams on Friday night to end their regular season and lock up the No. 1 seed in the NESCAC for the first time in program history. Five Jumbos scored in double digits, with three of those players coming off the bench. The team matched its regular season record from last year with a 19-5 mark but improved its conference record from last year’s 7-3 to 8-2 this year.

The program also celebrated Senior Day on Friday and honored its three seniors and tri-captains — center Tom Palleschi, guard Tarik Smith and center Drew Madsen — at the beginning of the game. The seniors have provided key leadership both on and off the court, with Smith and Palleschi both passing the 1,000-point mark this season and Madsen stepping up into the starting center role in recent weeks.

Tom [Palleschi], Tarik [Smith] and Drew [Madsen] are three very nice, genuine guys that care a lot about the sport,” first-year guard Eric Savage said. “One of the major things they helped me with is that they expected a lot from me despite the fact that I was a [first-year] and they never used my age as an excuse. They helped motivate me to be a contributor on this team regardless of my graduating year.”

With Palleschi and first-year center Patrick Racy both injured, the Jumbos shifted their usual lineup around, now playing Madsen and 6’4″ junior guard KJ Garrett as the team’s big men. Although Madsen is used to playing as a big man in the middle, Garrett is only just getting used to the shift. Despite playing against a Williams center that had six inches on him, Garrett’s speed and ball handling won him the matchup, as he was nearly perfect, shooting 5-6 overall and 3-3 from beyond the arc.

KJ [Garrett] and I were quicker than they were so we were able to get in better positions,” Madsen said. “Even though we were smaller, we had lower centers of gravity and were able to push them out more. They got a couple of easy baskets, but for the most part, we got into good positions before they could by using our quickness and athleticism.”

Smith opened up the scoring with a three-pointer on the Jumbos’ first possession, and they held that lead for the entire game. With the help of Madsen at center, Tufts thwarted Williams several times in the defensive end and built up an 11-4 lead. The Ephs started to close the gap, but Madsen dunked and then hit a layup on back-to-back possessions around the 10-minute mark to kick off a dominant final 10 minutes of the first half for the Jumbos. Williams struggled to stop Tufts from driving to the hoop without fouling, and Tufts took advantage to outscore the visitors 28-10 in the last 10:09 of the half to build up a 47-26 lead.

The Jumbos shot 57.1 percent from the field in the first half, led by Smith — whose success cutting through the Eph defense and driving to the hoop earned him 12 points on 4-5 shooting — and Garrett, who scored nine off the bench. Tufts was also effective from beyond the arc, shooting 6-14 compared to an abysmal 1-9 from Williams. The Jumbos identified the Ephs’ weak first-half perimeter defense and capitalized on it to an even greater extent in the second half.

Another strength came from the Jumbos’ ability to move the ball quickly and effectively. This was evident from Tufts recording 24 assists — with junior guard Everett Dayton leading with five — compared to only 10 from Williams.

Despite better shooting from Williams to start the second half, junior guard Ben Engvall, Dayton and Smith all hit three-pointers to maintain a 22-point Jumbo advantage with 15 minutes to play. Then Savage, who was Tufts’ high scorer against Trinity last week, turned it on to help maintain a safe lead until the buzzer. Savage scored no points in the first half and didn’t record any points until hitting a layup with 14:42 remaining, but he then went 5-for-7 from downtown over the next eight minutes to finish with 17 points to become the team’s leading scorer in the contest. He also tallied two assists and two steals. 

Savage seemed particularly confident late in the half, frequently shooting from distance with over 20 seconds left on the shot clock.

“Sometimes you’re just feeling it. I got that look in my eye,” Savage said. “My teammates did a great job of setting me up, so they made it easy on me. Williams was struggling to get guys to defend the perimeter the whole game, and I just got hot and my teammates helped me exploit that.”

During Savage’s scoring run, junior guard Vincent Pace and Garrett added three-pointers of their own, so by the time Savage went back to the bench, the lead had been extended to 30 points. The Ephs managed to make up some ground with 12 points in the final five minutes, but it wasn’t enough to significantly affect the Jumbos’ 93-68 lead. The Jumbos got the ball back with a minute left, and sophomore guard Ethan Feldman and first-year guard Miles Bowser grabbed offensive rebounds on the final possession to help run out the clock.

The game was a testament to the Jumbos’ ability to dominate a game with strong shooting, as they finished going 52.4 percent from the field and an impressive 18-for-36 from beyond the arc. The performance stood in stark contrast to the previous weekend’s loss to Amherst, when Tufts shot just 25 percent from three-point range.

Heading into last weekend, there was a chance for a three-way tie for first place in the NESCAC with Middlebury and Amherst. But with Amherst losing to Middlebury and dropping to 7-3 in the conference and Middlebury finishing 8-2 but having lost to Tufts back in January, Tufts claimed sole possession of the top seed and will host No. 8 seed Hamilton at Cousens Gym on Saturday.

A win this weekend would earn them hosting rights for the semifinals and finals the following weekend, which would be a major advantage for a Jumbo squad that is 10-1 at home this season.

“We’ve only lost one game at home this year,” Madsen said. “Everything about it is more comfortable. We practice there so we know the space very well. I’m hoping we’ll have a packed house on Saturday and that definitely helps us play better because when the fans get into it, we know that they have our backs and it gets us going.”