On Friday, the Tufts Jumbos (22-7) concluded their 2016–2017 season with a 87-80 defeat at the hands of their hosts, the Babson Beavers (29-2). The team’s Sweet Sixteen exit ties them with the 2005–2006 squad for the second-most successful NCAA Div. III men’s basketball tournament run in program history.
“It was a very exciting atmosphere because there were a lot of people there from both sides,” first-year guard Eric Savage said. “I was very pleased with the Tufts students that came to support us and I took a moment during warm up to smile and let it all sink in. I tried to enjoy it rather than let it make me nervous.”
The first few minutes in Staake Gymnasium verged on calamitous for the visiting Jumbos, as the men from Medford could not slow the Beavers’ offense. At just 3:02 into the game, Tufts coach Bob Sheldon burned a timeout after a lay-up by Babson’s senior guard Charlie Rice made the score 13-2.
The tactical move — intended to interrupt the hosts’ rhythm and momentum — achieved the desired effect, as the Jumbos resolutely fought themselves back into contention. With less than a minute left in the first half, a three-pointer by Savage tied the game up at 38. After senior forward Isaiah Nelsen responded with a jump shot to give the lead back to Babson, sophomore guard Ethan Feldman nailed a long-range buzzer-beater to give Tufts a previously inconceivable 41-40 lead entering the break.
“Their starting five came out and jumped on us,” Savage said. “We just needed to let the nerves settle in and get everybody on the same page. There were no major changes, but [we] just [worked on] intangible things like focus and energy.”
Junior guard Vincent Pace offered a similar perspective on the team’s early struggles and eventual recovery.
“We came out slow and they came out hot, like we knew they were going to,” he said. “We just kind of had to withstand their run and claw our way back into the game, which we eventually did in the first half.”
Savage led all Jumbos with 14 first-half points, 10 of which came in the last 4:02 of the half, while Pace and senior tri-captain center Tom Palleschi chipped in eight apiece. As a team, Tufts outrebounded Babson during the first half, 19-12, and the Jumbos forced the Beavers into missing all 11 of their three-point attempts.
“We really focused on locking down their shooting [from senior guard Joey] Flannery and [junior forward Nick] Comenale,” Savage said. “In the first half, that forced them to go to 0-for-11, but we then sacrificed Isaiah Nelsen who got a lot of open looks early on. It was definitely our defense that caused their poor shooting performance in the first half, but unfortunately we couldn’t build up a bigger lead going into the second half.”
“[Our strategy] was just forcing the guys we wanted to take the outside shots,” Pace said. “They’re a good shooting team, so we were fortunate that they were missing in the first half.”
The lead changed hands several times during the opening minutes of the second half. Tufts’ advantage peaked at the 16:43 mark, when a shot from behind the arc by junior Ben Engvall gave the visitors a 51-45 lead. Babson scored the next 11 points, however, and Tufts would not lead again. Assisted in part by a 22-9 free throw attempt disparity in the second half, the Beavers kept the Jumbos at arm’s length for the rest of the contest.
“You can’t concern yourself with what the refs are doing and what’s going on,” Savage said. “They have Flannery who is very good at attacking the rim, so he’s going to draw more fouls naturally.”
In winning, Babson overcame a nearly-invisible performance by their bench players with four players scoring a grand total of two points in 24 combined minutes. The firepower provided by their veteran starting line up was more than enough to make up for that disparity.
Once again, Tufts failed to prevent Flannery from scoring. Having put up 42 points the last time the two teams played in the final game of the Big Four Classic, the reigning National Association of Basketball Coaches Div. III Player of the Year put up an equally impressive stat line in Friday’s contest. Flannery scored 38 points while shooting 11-for-20 (55 percent) from the field and 15-of-17 (88.2 percent) from the free-throw line. The Acton, Mass. native also contributed eight rebounds, two assists and two steals.
Nelsen was Babson’s second-highest scorer, making 10-of-16 field goal attempts (good for 62.5 percent) in a 22-point and six-rebound performance. Rice chipped in 13 points, seven rebounds and two assists.
The Jumbos’ statistically strongest performance came from Savage, who scored a career-high 20 points while grabbing seven rebounds and dishing four assists in 31 minutes off the bench. Pace and Feldman each posted 14 points, with the former snagging seven rebounds and the latter grabbing five.
In his final game in Tufts colors, Palleschi registered 13 points and five rebounds. Even after having missed nine games this year due to a dislocated kneecap, Palleschi ends his career with 1,218 points, placing him 13th on Tufts’ all-time scoring chart. He also concludes his time in Medford with 682 rebounds, good for eighth on the career rankings. Additionally, he finishes atop the school’s all-time blocks list, with 270 career rejections — an astounding 120 more than the amount registered by the next-highest player, Khari Brown (LA ‘94).
Despite only scoring four points in his final outing for the Jumbos, senior tri-captain guard Tarik Smith finished his career with 1,115 points, joining Palleschi in the record books as the 17th most prolific scorer in school history. Meanwhile, Smith’s 364 career assists rank him eighth all-time among Tufts players. His 71.1 percent mark from the stripe this season, however, lowers him from ninth to 12th on the Jumbos’ all-time free-throw percentage rankings (with a 77.8 career clip).
The other Jumbo senior, tri-captain center Drew Madsen, grabbed a lone rebound in ten minutes off the bench. He finishes his career with 308 rebounds.
Pace expressed his affection and admiration for the graduating Palleschi, Smith and Madsen.
“[I] just can’t say enough [about] how important they were to this program [and] how their leadership was just unbelievable all year,” he said. “We’re gonna miss them a lot. We love them, and it’s going to be sad that they’re not going to be there next year.”
Savage agreed that the three departing seniors will be dearly missed.
“I have so much love for Drew, Tom and Tarik,” he said. “They meant so much to the program and I really appreciate everything they’ve given to us these past four years.”