Men’s basketball upset by Williams in NESCAC semifinals, await likely NCAA at-large bid

Junior Everett Dayton cuts past a William' defender on Feb. 25. (Angelie Xiong / The Tufts Daily)

A strong NESCAC tournament run from the men’s basketball team came to a disappointing end in the conference semifinal round for the second straight season on Saturday as the Jumbos were upset by the Williams Ephs in Cousens Gym by an 81-65 margin. Williams, who had upset Amherst the prior week in the quarterfinals, was the sixth seed in the tournament.

Despite beating the Ephs by 25 points earlier this month, the Jumbo offense stalled in the second half of the match-up and the Ephs pulled away in the waning minutes to take a decisive win. Tufts, with a 20-6 record (8-2 NESCAC) and the conference’s top seed at the end of the regular season, will now await a likely at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

“I have to be honest, I think they wanted it more than us because we had embarrassed them before,” coach Bob Sheldon said. “They knew they had to win to get in the NCAAs so they came in and had that edge, and I think it showed right from the very beginning. We will use this as a learning tool for the playoffs. The next time we play like this, we’re done and the season is over.”

The Ephs took the lead from the very beginning, scoring on both of their first two possessions to take a 5-0 lead. The Jumbos missed three-pointers on their first two possessions, but senior tri-captain guard Tarik Smith sunk a three on the third to put his team on the board. Smith later hit a jumper to narrow the lead, and then junior guard KJ Garrett, who entered the game for the first time at the 14:29 mark, hit a three to give the Jumbos their first lead of the game, 13-12.

That lead didn’t last long and Williams quickly took back control, forcing Tufts to play from behind until the 7:41 mark of the second half. The Jumbos were able to keep pace with the Ephs for the rest of the half and at times narrowed the margin to just one point, but still entered the break down 39-35.

Six minutes into the game, tri-captain center Tom Palleschi made his first appearance for the Jumbos since Jan. 20, inspiring loud cheers from the audience. Still easing back into playing, however, he played just eight minutes total.

The Jumbos struggled early on. Though by the end of the first half, they had gained rhythm and were shooting a solid 44.4 percent. Junior guard Everett Dayton led the Jumbos with seven points and four rebounds at the end of the first half. The Ephs, however, shot 50 percent from the field.

The major difference between the teams was defense. The Jumbos, who had defended extremely well in the previous match-up between the two teams, were not able to get the Ephs off of the perimeter without sacrificing their ability to prevent drives to the basket. In the final minutes of the first half, Tufts defense lost Williams sophomore forward/center Marcos Soto in the paint on consecutive possessions. Soto capitalized during both instances, making a pair of uncontested lay-ups to put the Ephs ahead by seven.

“We didn’t rebound, we didn’t stay connected to the game and we weren’t taking decent shots,” Sheldon said. “We missed some easy lay-ups and we didn’t play a good game.”

The Jumbos opened the second half with stronger defense, and junior guard Ben Engvall grabbed an offensive rebound and made a lay-up on their first possession to narrow the gap to two points. But the Ephs stayed consistent with their shooting, and the Jumbos struggled to find ways to score other than from beyond the arc. 

For most of second half, just as in the first, the Jumbos never trailed by more than a few points until they found themselves down 61-55 with 8:30 to play. But a pair of successful free throws from sophomore guard Ethan Feldman and then back-to-back threes from junior guard Thomas Lapham and Garrett — which put Garrett at 4-for-4 shooting from distance — gave the lead back to the Jumbos for the first time since their brief lead in the first half.

But after taking the 63-61 lead, Tufts began to lose momentum and saw Williams tie it up at 65-65 and then pull away for the comfortable win in the final six minutes. After the Jumbos took their lead, the Ephs went on a 20-2 run, aided by some hastily attempted shots by the Jumbos in their final possessions. Williams was able cut to the basket with ease, often without any Jumbos even close to playing the post.

Over the course of the game, the Ephs scored 32 points in the paint compared to the Jumbos’ eight. Williams also tallied 48 rebounds to Tufts’ 29. The defense that had done so well on Feb. 10 was nowhere to be found.

“On defense, [Williams] packs it in, which means they get a lot of help on any drives and want to force the other team to shoot from outside,” Dayton said. “We also struggled to finish our shots around the basket.”

Tufts threw away consecutive offensive possessions, took wild shots with over 20 seconds left on the shot clock and made careless passes. Though the game ended at 81-65, the score line was not indicative of the game overall, as Tufts remained neck-and-neck with Williams up until the final minutes. Despite a full court press for the final two minutes, the Jumbos could not stop the Ephs from running away with the game.

Williams ended up losing to Middlebury 84-62 in the NESCAC Championship game Sunday afternoon at Cousens to take the runner-up spot in the conference.

Unfortunately for the Jumbos, the loss against Williams marked the end to their historic run in the NESCAC and a season that saw them host the conference championship for the first time in program history. It is still very likely, however, that the Jumbos will receive an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament.

“We all want to get a bid, we don’t want to end our season on a loss like that,” Garrett said. “Getting into the [NCAA] tournament, which is pretty likely and hopefully it happens, means the seniors have another chance to play and we have another chance of going out the way we want.”

The news of the NCAA bracket will be released this afternoon.