Men’s basketball beats Middlebury after an up and down winter break

Sophomore Justin Kouyoumdjian saves the ball from going out of bounds in a home game against Hamilton in Cousens Gym on Feb. 2, 2018. (The Tufts Daily / Rachel Hartman)

The Jumbos have gained ground since the end of last semester, when they struggled out of the gate, finishing at 2–4. They are now at 8–9 overall and 2–2 in the NESCAC, good for seventh out of 11 in the conference.

This past weekend, Tufts stole a dramatic last-second win from Middlebury (now 13–5, 2–2 NESCAC). Playing at home in Cousens Gym, the Jumbos narrowly edged out the Panthers 86–84.

The win came courtesy of sophomore guard Brennan Morris’ bucket just before the buzzer. He drained a jumper with six seconds left in regulation.

“After the recent win versus Middlebury, it was a great feeling, as one could imagine,” Morris said. “Middlebury was a top 25 team all season long and beating them was a huge win. It proves that on any given night we have the potential and talent to beat any team.”

Early on, the two teams traded the lead frequently as the Jumbos tried to pull away and the Panthers kept the pace. Through the first half, the game was tied seven times until the Panthers pulled ahead to a 42–36 halftime lead.

Middlebury clung to its lead early in the second half, but Tufts clawed its way back, eventually pulling ahead to an 80–73 lead. A last-minute Middlebury run tied the game at 84 with 36 seconds remaining, but Morris made his mark on the game and delivered for the Jumbos. The Middlebury game was a watershed moment for Tufts: five players scored double-digits. 

“I think we were able to perform well because we played together and with high energy,” Morris said. “On offense, we didn’t take the first shot, but the best shot for the team, which is why we were able to shoot at such a high percentage. Similarly, on defense, we were able to rotate to help others and force them into tough shots. There is still plenty of room for improvement with such a young roster, but it was a huge step in the right direction.”

The game reflected a strong effort up and down the roster, something which coach Bob Sheldon, Jr., emphasized early on as a key performance indicator for the team. He recognized that the team is now beginning to develop its own identity as a high-octane scoring squad.

“We’ve had a different scoring leader almost every night, and even though the guys are still learning how to work through the different defensive sets and rotations, it has been great to see the young guys building an identity as shooters,” Sheldon said. “Moving forward, learning how to play team defense will be the biggest key.”

Prior to the Middlebury matchup, Tufts had nine other games over the break — most recently a loss to Williams (85–61). After suffering two losses in a row to Nichols (87–81) and then Colby (103–93), Tufts bounced back with two wins against Bowdoin (87–79) and UMass Boston (96–75).

At the end of winter break, the Jumbos traveled to Staten Island, NY, where they participated in the 17th Annual Tournament of Heroes Championship. At the tournament, Tufts beat a strong Gwynedd Mercy University team 92–78 before losing to Staten Island 98–94. Coach  Sheldon Jr. explained that the tournament stands as a memorial for those who lost their lives on Sept. 11, 2001, and that the team greatly appreciated being a part of the commemoration. Before the end of the Fall semester, Tufts lost 90–75 to UMass Dartmouth on Dec. 10 before beating Framingham State 90–89 on Dec. 12.

According to first-year guard Tyler Aronson, the team has bonded through the ups and downs of the past month, particularly after traveling to New York together.

“We have a positive outlook and are shooting for one of the mid-seeds in NESCAC heading into the playoffs,” Aronson said.

With junior captain guard Eric Savage, junior center Patrick Racy and senior walk-on guard Brian Creonte as the sole upperclassmen, the team’s success will depend heavily on the contributions of young scorers like Morris and Aronson.

“Playing college basketball has definitely been an adjustment, but I feel like I am getting comfortable now, particularly with the defensive schemes, and am able to go out there and do the best that I can,” Aronson said. “We’ve spent much of the break together practicing, so moving forward I think that will help make us all more confident as a team.”

Morris echoed Aronson’s quiet confidence and appreciation of the leaders’ ability to keep everyone calm, poised and organized.

“The coaches have obviously played a role in helping the team come together. We’ve had several meetings discussing our culture, our standards and each player’s role that they need to execute to be the best team we can be,” Morris said. “Savage, as captain, has also helped mesh our team together. He makes sure everyone is held accountable for their actions and makes sure all of the players are meeting standards on and off the court.”

Tufts travels to Maine this weekend to continue its NESCAC tour, taking on Bates in Brunswick, Maine on Saturday. At 2–2 in the NESCAC, Tufts hopes to keep the pedal down and assert its dominance over the lower quartile of the division.

“Over the remainder of the season I expect us to keep improving,” Morris said. “We have enough individual talent on our roster to compete with any team in the country. We need to keep on making progress with every game we play, and with that make a strong showing in NESCAC play that will carry over to the playoffs.”