Men’s basketball stuns Middlebury in playoffs, eliminates top seed

Junior guard and captain Eric Savage goes for a shot during Tufts 75-71 win over Wesleyan. (Evan Slack / The Tufts Daily Archives)

Tufts dethroned No. 25 Middlebury in the NESCAC tournament quarterfinal in Middlebury, Vt. on Saturday, taking down the NESCAC regular season champions 85–76.

This is the first time in conference history that an eighth seed has knocked off a first seed, a remarkable feat for a team comprised mostly of underclassmen.

Junior captain Eric Savage led the charge with 19 points, 10 rebounds and three assists on Saturday, lifting the team to its greatest height this year.

“We did a great job of playing together especially in terms of rotating on defense to find shooters and then rebounding to finish possessions,” he said. “That allowed us to keep the game close, and down the stretch, we rose to the occasion and made a little bit of history as the first [eighth] seed to beat a one seed in the NESCAC tournament.”

Through the first half and deep into the second, no team led by more than five points. Around the 10-minute mark, Savage sank two free throws and sophomore guard Justin Kouyoumdjian increased the lead to four with a layup. After a Panther layup from Alex Sobel, first-year guard Carson Cohen sunk a three to put the Jumbos ahead, 26–21, with 7:38 left in the first half.

First-year guard Tyler Aronson drained a three heading into the break, putting the Jumbos ahead 41–39, and Savage hit one as well to open the second, but Middlebury hung stubbornly close throughout.

With 4:08 remaining in the game, the Jumbos were down 72–71. Aronson wrestled his way to the free-throw line, sinking two to put the Jumbos up. He then followed with a layup on the next possession. After trading buckets with Middlebury, the Jumbos found themselves up by three on the Panthers, 77–74 with 2:07 left. They would not relinquish the lead for the rest of the game.

Following misses by the Panthers as the clock ran down, sophomore guards Brennan Morris and Kouyoumdjian added a layup and two free throws to give the Jumbos a convincing 81–74 lead with 44 seconds left. Middlebury was only able to muster one more bucket while the Jumbos made two before time expired, punching in the 85–76 win.

“I thought we did a great job of sharing the ball and pushing it in transition,” sophomore center Luke Rogers said. “Rebounding was a group effort for us and we tried to push it really hard in transition. A couple of players stepped up and hit some really big shots but at the end of the day we played really good team basketball.”

In addition to Savage’s double-double, Aronson posted 17 points and five boards, with Morris adding 16 and Kouyoumdjian 11 to the total.

Overall, the Jumbos shot 46 percent from field goal range, above the Panthers’ 39 percent even though the Panthers got off 16 more shots. The Jumbos were also out-rebounded (44–40), had fewer assists (16–9), more turnovers (13–10) and fewer points in the paint (28–38).

The old saying goes that offense wins games, but defense wins championships. There is no doubt that Tufts has had a dynamic offense over the course of the season and has had its fair share of defensive struggles. However, it was its defense that helped it pull through in the end, shutting down Middlebury even as Tufts’ own offense was, based on statistics, outcompeted.

This efficiency and heart were the story of the game, allowing the Jumbos to steal one under the noses of the Panthers at their own Pepin Gymnasium.

“We play a very similar style to Middlebury,” first-year guard Tyler Aronson said. “The winners in the NESCAC tournament get re-seeded after each round, and I have the utmost confidence in our guys to keep going out there and giving it everything we’ve got.”

Moving forward, the Jumbos will be traveling to Hamilton to continue their quest to dominate the NESCAC. Hamilton finished second in the NESCAC regular season and is ranked tenth overall in Div. III. The Jumbos have another tall order awaiting them this weekend.

“Our strategy against Hamilton isn’t anything special,” Savage said. “We are confident we can win by sticking with what we have been doing all year and staying true to our identity. This win meant a lot, as all wins do this time of year. As a team we have been talking a lot recently about ‘keeping the window open,’ meaning you need to win to elongate your season.”

Nevertheless, they’ve shown they can battle through the adversity of being on the road against top competition and have the heart and guts to make it count. In the other semi-final, third-seeded Amherst and fourth-seeded will Williams battle it out, also at Hamilton. The conference final will be played on Sunday.

“Against Hamilton we are going to try and do the same thing. We want to get the ball up the floor and a couple keys for us are going to be dominating the boards and limiting my turnovers. Personal goals are obsolete; at this point everything is about the team,” Rogers said.

For Savage, taking it one game at a time is paramount. He said that by keeping focus and playing hard, he knows not to take anything for granted.

“We got a big win on Saturday and that allowed us the opportunity to play again this coming weekend and that’s what it’s all about: keeping your season alive,” he said.