Jumbos face top seed Middlebury in NESCAC Tournament

Sophomore guard Justin Kouyoumdjian looks for a pass during Tufts' 75–71 win over Wesleyan on Jan 26. Evan Slack/The Tufts Daily

Despite falling to Trinity in their final game of the regular season on Sunday in Hartford, Conn., Tufts managed to clinch the eighth and final spot in the NESCAC Conference Tournament that begins this weekend.

Ultimately, the Jumbos finished with a record of 11–13 overall and 4–6 in the NESCAC, just good enough to give them a chance to build up a winning streak in the playoffs.

After a photo finish on Wednesday night, Hamilton dethroned prospective conference champion Amherst, shaking up the final standings. The Middlebury Panthers now stand officially as the conference winner, finishing 7–3 in conference play and 18–6 overall. Middlebury is followed by Amherst (7–3), Hamilton (7–3), Trinity, Wesleyan and Williams (6–4), Colby (5–5), and Tufts. According to head coach Bob Sheldon, Jr., the ties were broken based on head-to-head competition results over the course of the season. 

The Jumbos previously beat the Panthers at home on Jan. 12 of this year, 86–84, in a last-second high-scoring thriller. The NESCAC quarter-final on Saturday should be just as riveting.

“The plan for the playoffs is the same as it was if you asked me in November. Win each and every game so we can earn another chance to play a game. Do that and eventually we’ll have won the whole thing,” junior guard and captain Eric Savage said. “So we’ll be playing in Vermont at 3 p.m. Saturday. We beat them once and we’re confident we’re going to beat them again.”

On Thursday, Feb. 7, the Jumbos took down the Lasell Lasers in Newton, Mass., 101–90, at a makeup game after a power outage forced the teams to postpone their original Jan. 22 matchup.

It was a marquee performance for Tufts, the first time all season that the squad scored 100 points or more. The high scoring was thanks in large part due to five Jumbos putting up double-digit scoring figures. Sophomore center Luke Rogers led the Jumbo effort with 21 points and 13 rebounds on 8–12 shooting. Savage contributed 19 points, sophomore guard Justin Kouyoumdjian added 18, sophomore guard Brennan Morris had 14 and first-year guard Carson Cohen supplemented with 12 off of the bench.

First-year guard Tyler Aronson commented on Kouyoumdjian’s performance and prospects.

“I’ve been fortunate to have gotten a lot of playing time and have a big role on the team,”  Aronson said. “But Justin Kouyoumdjian is definitely the one to watch over the next few weeks. He’s been making a lot of strong plays for us lately.”

The Jumbos were behind Trinity for much of the match during their final season game. Despite trading buckets for the first few minutes of play, the Bantams pulled away, amassing a 21–10 lead. The Jumbos sputtered on offense and were outplayed on defense, down 28–15 with 6:20 left in the first half. Before the first buzzer, they battled back to 40–30 to take a healthy, but not insurmountable, deficit into the second half.

Trinity held a commanding lead throughout the second half, though, ultimately beating Tufts 87–67. Savage posted 20 points in the effort, with support from Rogers’ 14, Morris’ 13 and Cohen’s seven off the bench.

In terms of offensive statistics, the Jumbos closely matched the Bantams. The Jumbos shot 45 percent from the field, while the Bantams fared only slightly better 47 percent. Both secured 29 rebounds. However, the Bantams exploited the Jumbos’ porous defense and sometimes sloppy offense, cashing in 28 points off 27 Jumbo turnovers and scoring 15 second-chance points.

Sheldon hinted that the team would stick to its typical rotations in the NESCAC match.

“Middlebury has a little height on us, but it’s not a tremendous difference,” he said. “We’re just going for it all and having fun with it. I’m not trying to shake anything up, and everyone should expect to be playing their typical number of minutes.”

Moving forward, the Jumbos expect to face stiff competition from all teams in the conference, looking up at each of its rivals in terms of regular-season standings. This means that they will be on the road throughout the entire tournament, leaving for Middlebury on Friday right after practice.

“We’ve had a really tough season on the road this year,” Sheldon said. “Something about coming off the bus hasn’t been kind to us. It will be nice to be able to get up to Middlebury Friday night and have some time to regroup before Saturday’s game.”

The winner of the conference tournament gets an automatic berth into the NCAA Div. III tournament. According to Aronson, as many as four NESCAC teams have secured entry in the past.

“I definitely think Amherst and Williams are two teams to watch,” Aronson said. “I have the utmost confidence in our team, though, and we’ve watched a lot of film on both Middlebury and Amherst this week in preparation. I’m excited to take on Middlebury because we have a very similar style of play. We beat them once, and we can do it again.”

It’s getting close to March Madness, and veteran captain Savage knows just what that means: Anything can happen.

“Despite having our ups and downs we have been steadily improving since the start of the year. Our ball movement and defensive rotations have come a long way. Our team firmly believes that when we are playing our hardest and executing our game plan with tempo we will beat anyone that is put in front of us.”