Wrapping up its regular season with a final home win before the NESCAC playoffs, Tufts (6–4 in the NESCAC) hosted Trinity (4–6) in a Sunday afternoon game. With the Jumbos sitting at sixth in the conference and the Bantams seventh, the game had the potential to flip the standings ahead of the NESCAC tournament, but the hosts pulled out a 76–71 win.
The game was slow to start, especially for the Jumbos, who failed to put points on the board in their first six possessions. The Jumbos recovered, but only after sophomore guard Eric Savage collected a pair of fouls, sending him to the bench for most of the first half.
Savage’s fouls were hardly the exception, as contact was common in the contest. The game continued to heat up, even after the Jumbos pulled ahead 16–11 midway through the first. Only five Jumbos put points on the scoreboard in the first half, but strong showings from a trio of senior guards — co-captain Vincent Pace (nine), co-captain Everett Dayton (seven) and KJ Garrett (seven) — kept the Jumbos afloat.
Pace explained that despite the frequency with which fouls were being called, the Jumbos adapted quickly.
“You don’t really change the game plan [because fouls are getting called],” Pace said. “You just have to adjust to the way they’re calling it. [Senior guard and co-captain Thomas Lapham] did a great job taking charges because they were quick with the whistle. That gave us a lot of momentum.”
Trinity pulled ahead 32–30 at the end of the first half on the back of a three from sophomore guard Joseph Bell. Bell’s three pointer was only the second of the half by the Bantams of eight attempts from behind the arc. Both teams were lackluster from the field in the first half, with the Jumbos shooting 32.1 percent, while the Bantams managed 40.6 percent. The biggest differential, however, was in free throws. Tufts made 11 of their 18 free throws, while Trinity only shot 4-of-8 from the line.
While the first half’s physicality continued in the second half, both teams found their offensive rhythms as well, playing like their seasons depended on it. More than once, players leapt over one another to chase down a loose ball, and neither team pulled ahead by a substantial margin in the second half. The largest lead of the half belonged to the Bantams, who led by six, 49–43, with 11:57 left to play.
Tufts coach Bob Sheldon explained that it was important for his players to remain calm in the face of Trinity’s physicality.
“We said they’re going to be chippy, they’re going to push you, they’re going to take little cheap shots,” Sheldon said. “You’ve just got to put the team first. Take the person out of it. If you get a cheap shot, don’t retaliate, just play and let the referees call the game — don’t get baited into that.”
The Jumbos made up that ground, however, and finally pulled ahead, 66–64, with 2:37 left in a chippy final stretch. The fouls were not superficial, as plenty of hard contact was made on both sides of the ball, and the last five minutes of the game saw 14 fouls between the two teams. While the Bantams equalized twice at 66 and 69 points, they never led and ultimately fell 76–71.
While a few Jumbos monopolized the first-half scoring, the team eventually had nine players aid in the offensive effort. Pace led the way with 18 points, despite only connecting on 5-of-15 shots from the field. Dayton was second on the scoreboard, recording a double-double, with 17 points and 10 rebounds. Garrett dominated in other aspects of the game, providing the Jumbos with three steals and three offensive boards to go along with his nine points.
The Jumbos were given no shortage of free throw attempts, with 22 in the second half alone. Tufts converted 27 of its 40 free throws attempts, leveraging those opportunities to secure the win, according to Pace.
“We made a run and got some baskets that were unanswered,” Pace said. “But we really hit our free throws down the stretch to pull away.”
While the Jumbos made their free throws in crunch time, Sheldon explained that he wants to see the team improve on the 67.5 percent conversion mark that it recorded on Sunday.
“We’d like to get that up into the 70s,” Sheldon said. “We told our team, and especially with six seniors, you don’t want your career [to] end because you couldn’t make a free throw. We’re shooting free throws every day, and we’re putting importance on it, because now it’s win and move on or lose and you don’t.”
Shooting three-pointers was also a serious issue for the Jumbos, who average 33.4 percent shooting from beyond the arc. On Sunday, however, Tufts connected on three of their 17 threes, managing just 17.6 percent.
Pace explained that while the team has definitely noticed an issue with three-point shooting, it’s not something he’s worried about.
“We haven’t been shooting it as well as we’d like, but we have confidence in our guys to take the shot when it’s open, and we have faith that they’ll knock it down,” Pace said.
Sheldon agreed that shooting was an area in which the Jumbos needed to improve heading into the postseason.
“We’ve been in a little bit of a slump over the last couple weeks with our shot-making,” Sheldon said. “Part of that is getting better shots, but part of that is also knocking down the open ones. We did a little better than we have in the past — we’re making the right steps — but that was the biggest thing [Sunday].”
With the win, Tufts secured the sixth seed in the upcoming NESCAC Tournament. The Jumbos will face the third-seeded Hamilton Continentals on Saturday in the first round of the single-elimination tournament.