Having secured the No. 1 seed in the NESCAC tournament for the first time in team history, the Tufts Jumbos (19-5) will host the Hamilton Continentals (16-8) on Saturday in their quarterfinals matchup. According to coach Bob Sheldon, the regular season feat carries significant emotional importance.
“[The players] were excited. They actually did the Gatorade pour in the locker room, but since we’re Div. III, it was water,” he said. “Any time you’re a team and you set a record or do something that hasn’t been done before, that’s special and it can never be taken away.”
Junior guard Everett Dayton said he and his teammates were energized by their achievements.
“After the Williams game, coach [Sheldon] walked in and we all had water bottles,” he said. “We waited a couple seconds – we were silent, acting all somber – and then we jumped on him and started pouring water bottles on him. I think that encapsulates our feeling about the whole thing.”
At the same time, Dayton emphasized that the team was not ready to rest on its laurels.
“We’re obviously super excited about it,” he said, “but we know it doesn’t mean anything unless we follow through and keep winning.”
Awaiting the Jumbos in their first tournament game is a Continentals squad who last visited Medford on Jan. 14. Tufts won comfortably, 94-81, despite Hamilton sophomore swingman Peter Hoffmann registering a game-high 22 points. Junior guard KJ Garrett led all Jumbos with 19 points, while first-year guard Eric Savage furnished 12 points and 10 rebounds en route to his first career double-double.
According to Sheldon, Hamilton’s nonstop style of play suits Tufts’ strengths.
“[The Continentals] try to run it. It’s going to be a fast-paced game, which we like because I think we’re fairly good at it,” he said. “We match up well with them, [and] we’re going to run. It’s going to be a high-paced game, and I think it’s the way we want to play.”
Dayton, too, said he thinks the Jumbos can handle the Continentals’ pace.
“They like to get out and run a little bit,” he said. “But we definitely think we can play at that pace with them, because that’s our game … if they want to play that way, we’re all for it.”
Hamilton’s regular season record of 16-8 is less impressive than it initially appears after accounting for the substandard quality of several of their non-conference opponents. In particular, the Continentals’ 4-6 NESCAC record speaks to the disparity in strength between their conference and non-conference schedules. Additionally, Hamilton has lost its last four games against teams with winning records, with no victories against an over-.500 team since a 127-82 victory over Wells College (15-8) on Jan. 25.
Moreover, the Continentals have struggled on the road against NESCAC opponents this season, tallying a 1-4 record in those matchups. In contrast, Tufts has assembled an 8-2 NESCAC record and is undefeated at home against conference opponents.
“[Hamilton has] very good size across the board,” Dayton said. “But, basically, if we play our game, don’t let any of their shooters get going, and keep them off the offensive glass, then we should be fine.”
In recent games, the injury-enforced absences of two centers – senior tri-captain Tom Palleschi and first-year Patrick Racy – have obliged Garrett to serve as a stopgap big man when senior tri-captain center Drew Madsen rests. Looking forward to the contest with Hamilton, Sheldon affirmed that tactics and talent will more than compensate for the loss of height on the court.
“Defensively we’re giving up a little bit, so we pick up a little more. We’re a little more aggressive on the wings when KJ is in there,” he said. “He’s a nut. I love him. He’s one of my favorite guys when he’s playing well … I mean, that dude can jump. He gets up quick and does some things that don’t usually happen at our level.”
Sheldon added that offensive benefits of playing small outweigh any possible defensive disadvantages.
“When [Garrett is] in there, it makes our offense quicker, because someone’s going to have to guard him,” he said. “With the bigger teams, some big guy is going to guard a guard … So we have that advantage on them in the offense and I don’t think as a big a disadvantage on defense, partly because [several players are] 6’5”. We just don’t have a big, big guy.”
On the whole, Sheldon is optimistic about his team’s chances.
“You know, we’re peaking,” he said. “We’re playing well and I think it’s going to be a good matchup for us.”
Tufts and Hamilton tip off at Cousens on Saturday at 2 p.m.