Men’s basketball overcomes struggles and soldiers forward at 4–3

Sophomore guard Eric Savage fights for a lay-up over four defenders in a 77–67 loss to Salem State at Cousens Gymnasium on Dec. 2, 2017. (Eddie Samuels / The Tufts Daily)

The Jumbos capped off a 2–1 stretch of emotional highs and lows with a last-second win over the Brandeis Judges, punched home by senior captain guard Vincent Pace’s buzzer-beating three-pointer. The shot granted the team a 4–3 record, as well as a third-place finish at the New England Big Four Challenge.

The Jumbos’ defensive struggles in this young season have been well-documented, and they popped up again during the first half of the 76–74 win on Sunday afternoon. Tufts came out of the gates hot, building up a 14–8 lead through a number of well-rounded contributions. They continued to raise their lead up to 12 through the first half, capitalizing on the hot hand of first-year guard Justin Kouyoumdjian. However, the Judges responded with a trio of threes during the final minutes of the half, storming back to claim a 41–37 lead at halftime.

The second half proved to be a dogfight, as the teams continuously traded the lead back and forth. The Jumbos began to step up on defense, limiting the Judges to only 33 points. Tufts led 71–68 with 1:37 remaining in the game, but clutch scoring from first-year guard Semih Say and sophomore guard/forward Collin Sawyer gave the Judges a one-point lead with 10 seconds left. Following a missed one-and-one free throw from Sawyer, sophomore guard Eric Savage unleashed a crosscourt pass with only two seconds remaining, landing in the hands of Pace, who stroked the game-winning three for the Jumbos.

“It was definitely cool,” Pace said of his shot. “It was the first buzzer beater I’ve ever hit. We needed that win and it’ll hopefully be a springboard for us so we can string a couple wins in a row and finish off until winter break strong.”

Savage also saw the game as a potential turning point for the team.

“It was really a defining game, because going into the weekend we didn’t hope to be in that situation,” he said. “We wanted to be in the championship. But we still had to come to play against a team like Brandeis who really wants to slow it down, in contrast to our fast-paced, run and gun style, so it’s great to get a win like that in such a crucial game. Hopefully, we can use it to propel us forward and improve defensively and start clicking on all cylinders.”

In contrast to this emotional victory, Saturday’s loss to the Salem State Vikings in the first game of the tournament provided ample despair. The Jumbos started out slow, trailing 11–4 through five minutes, but quickly battled back to tie the game at 13 thanks to five points from Savage. When the teams became deadlocked again with 8:30 remaining in half, six different Tufts players erupted to score 10 points unanswered, and soon went into the half with a comfortable 44–30 lead.

The second half quickly went awry for Tufts, as Salem State came out firing and closed the deficit to three points within only five minutes. The Jumbos briefly lost the lead, but regained it with a layup from senior guard and captain Everett Dayton that put them up 57–56. After that, the Vikings claimed the lead and never lost it again, powering off of the timely scoring of junior forward Tyreik McCauley. Salem State eventually pulled away for a 77–67 win, and the Jumbos, who had limited the Vikings to 28.68 percent (10-of-35) shooting in the first half, saw that number balloon to 52.9 percent (18-of-34) in the second.

Salem State went on to win the tournament, beating Babson 75–70 in the championship game.

“Our takeaway from that game is that we have to play for 40 minutes,” coach Bob Sheldon said. “We have to do what we need to do to win, and we did it for a half that game. But then we let up and just didn’t play defense, so we came out of the game with a different commitment to defense.”

Savage, who scored 12 points in the game, shared similar sentiments.

“We thought we could get away with playing more relaxed defense,” he said. “And that’s certainly not the case, so we’re going to have to ratchet up the intensity, but it’s just fixable mistakes with things like rotations and help side defense. The more stops we get, the more it’ll lead to points in transition.”

Prior to the New England Big Four Challenge, the Jumbos faced the Newbury College Nighthawks on Thursday night. The two teams battled hard and traded the lead multiple times in the first half, but Tufts claimed a 44–39 advantage at halftime, due to a balanced scoring attack — six Jumbos scored more than five points in the first half.

These well-rounded efforts continued in the second half, as the Jumbos built on their lead throughout the opening minutes, raising it to a 60–49 advantage on a layup from first-year center Max Oppenheim. While the Nighthawks mounted a quick comeback to strike within four points, Tufts responded with their own run to take control of the game and finish with an 84–71 win. Many players stepped up for the Jumbos in this win, with five members of the team reaching double figures in scoring, including senior guard Kene Adigwe, who came off the bench to score 10 points.

Senior guard Daivon Edwards led Newbury with 24 points in the loss.

Sheldon praised the depth of the team and the efforts of the players in the wake of injuries to senior guards KJ Garrett and captain Ben Engvall, two key contributors.

“It said a lot because we only have eleven healthy guys right now,” he said of the win. “We’ve been playing everybody in every game, just to see everyone get a lot of experience and play in real game situations. So it’ll be great for our team down the line. We hope to have everybody back and healthy for next semester, so this can only help us.”

Coming off of this three-game stretch, the Jumbos feel optimistic about this team’s future. They have gotten off to a rocky start due to injuries and a lack of defensive prowess, but they are now above .500,  at 4–3, and see the benefit to these early struggles. The team is improving its toughness and many players are capitalizing on their expanded roles.

“The freshmen have been great,” Pace said. “Luke [Rogers], Justin [Kouyoumdjian], Will [Brady], Brennan [Morris] and Max [Oppenheim] have been all been great. Kene  [Adigwe] is a senior but he’s been playing more minutes this year than before and he’s stepped up a lot. Guys are just stepping up all over the place and really contributing to the team.”

Sheldon appreciated the progress that the team has made, particularly in rebounding from the devastating loss to the Vikings with the emotional win over the Judges.

“If someone comes and watches a Tufts basketball game, what do they want to walk away saying?” he said. “We’d like them to walk away saying that we’re a great offensive team, we move the ball and everybody scores, and we’re a very solid defensive team that doesn’t want to give up points. I think we’re moving in that direction. We’re not there yet, but you don’t want to be there in the beginning of the season anyway, do you? Then there’s nowhere to go.”

Tufts will tip off against Emerson tonight at 7:30 p.m. and again against UMass Boston on Thursday.