Tufts basketball teams prepare for regular season finales

Tufts sophomore guard Miles Bowser (left) and senior guard Lauren Dillon (right). (The Tufts Daily/Rachel Hartman, Evan Sayles)

Men’s basketball

The Tufts men’s basketball team approaches the final game of the regular season with a record of 16–7. With a NESCAC record of 5–4, the sixth-place Jumbos have a lot to play for in their Sunday matchup with the Trinity Bantams (15–7): The top six teams in the NESCAC are only a handful of games apart, so the Jumbos could jump as high as third place by the end of Sunday.

There were several bright spots this season for Tufts, including a scorching 18.2 points per game from senior guard and co-captain Vincent Pace. The Bridgewater, N.J. native also led the team in rebounds with 8.5 per game. Both figures are in the top five of their respective statistical categories among all NESCAC players. Additionally, sophomore guard Eric Savage stepped into a larger role this season, finishing second on the team in both points (13.8) and rebounds (6.9).

Last season, Tufts finished 19–5 in the regular season, earning the top seed in the NESCAC tournament for the first time in school history. However, the team was bounced from the NESCAC Tournament semifinals by sixth-seeded Williams. Tufts also ran out of luck in the NCAA tournament, suffering a Sweet Sixteen loss to eventual champions Babson.

The dip in the team’s 2017–18 regular season record could speak to the loss of impact graduates Tarik Smith (LA ’17) and Tom Palleschi (LA ’17). The Jumbos also dealt with several injuries this season. One of the most notable maladies was senior guard and co-captain Ben Engvall’s ACL tear in the offseason, which caused him to miss all but five games. Engvall averaged only 7.8 minutes per game in those contests.

Senior co-captain guard Thomas Lapham spoke to the effect of not having Engvall available for a large part of the season.

“It’s definitely had an effect,” Lapham said. “He’s been playing a lot of minutes pretty much since he got here. Especially earlier in the year, it hurts not having a guy who’s a big part of both our defensive and offensive rotations. He’s a senior as well, so you hate to see him sidelined. It’s definitely good to have him back now.”

With Engvall healthy and the NESCAC up for grabs, the Jumbos will hope to erase their postseason memories from last year and find more success in tournament play. Tufts has never won a NESCAC title in men’s basketball and last appeared in the championship game in a 2006 overtime loss to Amherst.

Before the team can look to the postseason, however, it has one more game to worry about. The Jumbos will host the Trinity Bantams on Sunday in the final game of the regular season, with tip-off at 2 p.m. Trinity has a 4–4 NESCAC record, just a half game behind Tufts in the conference standings.

“Right now the NESCAC standings for the tournament are up in the air,” Lapham said. “So all we can do is go win on Sunday. We have to control what we can control, get a win and hopefully get home-court [advantage] for the first round.”

If the Bantams beat the Bates Bobcats (11–12) on Friday, they could leapfrog the Jumbos with a win on Sunday. With the two teams potentially fighting for a higher seed in the NESCAC tournament, Sunday’s matchup could prove to be a tense affair.

Women’s basketball

The No. 9 Tufts women’s basketball team (20–3) goes into every season with high expectations. Though the Jumbos expect to win every game, the season is long, the schedule is tough and bumps in the road are inevitable. Still, with one game left in the regular season, they look primed for another deep postseason and potentially a fifth consecutive trip to the Final Four.

Tufts’ dominance has become routine in past years, and this season is no different. The team is outscoring its opponents by nearly 20 points per game and is unbeaten in nine games at Cousens Gym.

The Jumbos are led both on and off the court by their four seniors, while depth and a balanced offensive attack are staples of their success. Coach Carla Berube has nine players averaging double-digit minutes and has started eight different players over the course of the year.

The team is led in scoring and rebounding by sophomore guard/forward Erica DeCandido and senior forward Melissa Baptista, respectively. DeCandido has averaged 13.4 points and 6.8 rebounds per contest, while Baptista — a member of last year’s All-NESCAC First Team — has contributed 13.0 points and snagged 7.1 boards per game (not to mention 1.7 blocks, which is tied for third best in the league). Meanwhile, junior guard Jac Knapp and senior guard and co-captain Lauren Dillon have handled the brunt of the backcourt responsibilities, playing 33.1 and 29.4 minutes per game respectively. Dillon — last year’s NESCAC Defensive Player of the Year — ranks second in the NESCAC in steals (2.4) and is tied for sixth in assists (3.2).

The Jumbos are coming off a weekend in which they lost 50–43 to the No. 1 Amherst Mammoths (22–0) — the defending national champions and perennially Tufts’ biggest test — and beat the Hamilton Continentals (14–8), 69–53. The team currently sits in third place in the NESCAC standings behind Amherst and No. 5 Bowdoin, to whom Tufts suffered a loss earlier in the season.

The Jumbos will visit the Trinity Bantams on Sunday for their final game of the regular season. Led by junior forward Courtney Erickson (12.6 points and 6.4 rebounds per game), Trinity is 14–8 overall, but only 2–6 in NESCAC play. The Bantams are on the outside looking in at the eighth and final spot in the conference tournament, and a win over the Jumbos is their only chance at postseason play.

“We never overlook any opponent, and we know they are going to be fighting for their lives,” Knapp said. “No game is easy. We are just looking to head into the tournament on a strong note.”

Barring a major fluke, the Jumbos will play in March’s NCAA Tournament. For now, though, the team’s sights are set squarely on beating Trinity and the NESCAC tournament.