On Saturday, bottom-seeded Tufts lost to second-seeded Hamilton 89–84 in the NESCAC tournament semifinals. The loss came after a miraculous victory against top-seeded Middlebury in Vermont last weekend, where the Jumbos made history as the first eight seed to dethrone a top seed in NESCAC men’s basketball tournament play.
From the opening minute, the contrast between the Hamilton and Tufts teams was clear — Hamilton started four seniors and one junior, while Tufts started one junior, three sophomores and a first-year. The experienced Continentals team has improved significantly over the last few years, moving up from last in the NESCAC in 2016 to tying for first place in 2018. Last season, the Continentals made a deep run to the third round of the NCAA tournament and brought that experience to the court on Saturday against a much less experienced team of Jumbos.
Hamilton took control straight from the tip-off, maintaining a lead for most of the first 10 minutes of the game. At times the Continentals’ lead stretched to seven points, but the Jumbos did well to stay in the game with a score of 17–19 at 10:58 in the first half. At that point, sophomore guard and the first half’s leading scorer Brennan Morris went on a 10-point unanswered run that gave the Jumbos a 27–19 advantage, forcing the Hamilton coach to call a timeout.
From that point, the Continentals, who had been shooting well from downtown, faltered, and the team’s shooting percentage fell to 31.3 percent from three in the first half. Though the Jumbos had accumulated more fouls than the Continentals in the first half, they did not pay for it, as the Continentals choked from the free-throw line, going 3-for-9.
Tufts demonstrated its strength in cutting through the paint to the basket, which was a weakness for the team earlier in the season. The Jumbos scored 20 points in the paint in the first half on Saturday. Fifteen points from Morris, 12 of which were from downtown, nine from junior captain Eric Savage and eight from sophomore center Luke Rogers gave the Jumbos a 43–40 lead to enter the second half.
The Jumbos maintained their lead until 14:32 remained on the clock in the second half, when 6’5″ sophomore guard/forward Spencer Kendall’s dunk brought the Continentals up 47–46. From there, the energy of the fans and a series of runs by the Continentals stretched their lead to as much as 14 points at times. Back-to-back dunks by Kendall fired up the home crowd with just under 14 minutes left, and Tufts coach Bob Sheldon called a full timeout a few seconds later.
“I think we played extremely well for about 35 minutes,” Savage said. “Around the 12-minute mark in the second half they went on a run where they were getting very high-percentage shots and we were either turning it over or not getting good shots. Combine that with a couple of dunks for them to get the home crowd excited, and the game got away from us a little bit.”
From there, the Continentals never relinquished their lead despite a hard-fought game by the Jumbos. With 1:34 left in the game, the lead was the largest it would be during the game, at 66–80, but Tufts battled on to narrow the gap to five by the final whistle. Notably, all nine of Hamilton’s last points which took them to a final score of 89, were free throws, as the Jumbos encountered foul trouble frustratingly early in the second half. Seven points from Savage, and a pair of threes from first-year guard Tyler Aronson were unfortunately not enough to level the score as the Jumbos’ NESCAC run came to an end with a final score of 84–89.
“We fought hard for all 40, which is great to see out of a young team, and brought it back to five at the end, but the real story of the game is that we got out-executed in the second half,” Savage said. “The loss stings obviously, but I’m very excited for next year and we plan on picking up right where we left off.”
This weekend concluded the Jumbos’ 2018–2019 season, and it was a story of highs and lows. With so many young players and so much talent, inconsistency was a problem for the Jumbos all year long.
“The end of our season showed that we have the ability to play with the top teams in the country. And with essentially the same team returning next year, we have the potential to be a very good team as our young core will have more experience and continue to improve. Throughout the offseason, we need to continue to work on our defensive principles, making the right basketball reads, and most importantly, creating winning habits,” Morris said.
Overall on the season, the Jumbos finished 12–14 and 4–6 in-conference. They were 5–3 at home in Cousens Gym. Fueled by a high-octane offense, they posted 82.3 points per game at a respectable 44.5 percent rate of scoring efficiency. From November through February, the team’s defense and rebounding steadily improved as the first-years and veterans became more confident in their rotations and how to move from individual to true team basketball.
Savage led the team in scoring this season with an even 16 points per game, with Rogers (14) and Morris (13.9) not far behind. Morris led the three-point charge, shooting an impressive 44.2 percent from long range. Savage also led in minutes per game (29.6) and assists per game (3.5), while Rogers posted the strongest rebounding numbers, at 9.1 per game.
The impact of underclassmen is undeniable; they make up a strong core of the starters and players with the most minutes. Next year, with Savage as a senior leading the charge once more and the first-years with one year of good experience under their belts, the Jumbos expect to rise in the NESCAC field and reduce their inconsistency. They hope to perform better on the road, improving on their 5–10 away record this year.