March always delivers. In a double overtime thriller yesterday at Cousens Gym, the men’s basketball team defeated Colby to win the NESCAC Championship for the first time in school history.
With 11 seconds remaining in regulation, Tufts found itself with the ball trailing Colby by three points. Sophomore guard Tyler Aronson received the inbound pass and bolted up the court. He sprinted to the right wing and handed the ball off to senior guard and co-captain Eric Savage, who took one dribble with his left hand before losing control of the ball. As the clock ticked towards zero, Savage chased after the ball and corralled it where the volleyball court’s spike line and end line meets, calmly set his feet and made a deep 35-foot shot. Colby’s last-second three-quarter court heave fell short so the game went to overtime tied 74–74.
“Insane shot. Insane moment in my life,” Savage said. “We ran a play to try to get Brennan Morris open in the corner for three. The play worked well but timing was a bit off so I wasn’t really ready to throw a pass when it was open. I made sort of a one handed attempt at it and the ball slipped out towards half court. I chased it down, didn’t really look at the clock. I wasn’t able to dribble again so I turned and hoisted one up. As soon as it left my hand, I knew it was good.”
Down 83–80 in overtime with 1:03 remaining, Tufts again found its back against a wall. Savage shot a three from the right wing, but it rimmed out. Sophomore guard Carson Cohen managed to grab the offensive rebound and kick the ball back out. With fewer than 40 seconds to go, the ball was swung around the three point line from first-year guard Dylan Thoerner to junior guard Morris to Savage, who put up a straightaway three-pointer. He was not going to miss twice.
“I knew somebody needed to hit a three,” Savage said.
With the score knotted up at 83, Colby first-year guard Will King broke through the Jumbos’ defense and converted a layup to put Colby ahead by two with 14 seconds remaining. Coming out of a Tufts timeout, Savage again had the ball in his hands with the chance to tie or take the lead. His contested pull up jumper missed, but Thoerner was fouled by Colby senior forward Dean Weiner while going after the rebound. The foul was Weiner’s fifth, disqualifying him from the game. Thoerner went to the line for two shots with five seconds on the clock and the weight of Cousens Gym on his shoulders. He calmly knocked down both free throws and Colby was unable to get a shot off before the buzzer sounded.
“That’s something you dream about,” Thoerner said. “Obviously I was nervous, but I thought positively and told myself I was going to make these, and there was no way we were going to lose the game.”
“My good friend Dylan has ice in his veins. Totally pure,” Savage said about Thoerner.
Savage began the second overtime with a pull-up jumper that put Tufts up 87–85; the Jumbos did not relinquish that lead. With Weiner fouled out, the Jumbos exploited a major size advantage down low, pounding the ball into junior center Luke Rogers. Rogers converted two layups and a free throw, stretching Tufts’ lead to 92–86 with 1:36 remaining. After Colby senior guard Sam Jefferson knocked down one of two free throws, Cohen was fouled on the other end and converted both free throws. Down seven with 1:10 to go, Colby elected to play the foul game. Savage, Thoerner, Morris and junior guard Will Brady combined to go eight for 10 from the line in the last minute, which was more than enough to clinch Tufts’ first NESCAC Championship in program history. The final score was 102–94.
Before the two overtime periods, regulation was a tale of two halves. In the first half, Jumbos completed 59.4% of their shots and held Mules to just 32.4%. Tufts constantly fed Rogers the ball, and he dominated on almost every paint touch. Rogers shot seven for eight in the first half, and when the defense collapsed on him, he kicked it to his open teammates, resulting in three assists. Tufts went into the break up 45–33.
“We were executing our game plan really well,” Thoerner said. “We had them right where we wanted them.”
In the second half, Colby employed a three-two zone that did a much better job denying Rogers paint touches. After scoring 15 points and recording three assists in the first half, Rogers was held to one point on four shots and zero assists in the second half. Some of Tufts best shooters also went ice cold in the second half as Morris, Aronson, and Brady combined to shoot one for 14 from the field. Tufts as a team shot only 28.1% in the second half. Poor shooting allowed Colby to climb back into the game.
“Colby went to this strange three-two zone,” Savage said. “We knew where the open areas were, but we were struggling to get the ball to our guys in those areas to make plays.”
The catalyst of Colby’s comeback was sophomore guard Noah Tyson. Tyson hit three three-pointers in the first few minutes of the second half. With 4:23 to go in regulation, Tyson tied the game at 63 with another three. On Colby’s very next offensive possession, Tyson was fouled on a three point attempt. He converted all three free throws, giving the Mules their first lead of the second half. Tyson scored 15 points in the second half and finished with 19 points. Along with Tyson, Weiner (23 points), junior guard Matt Hanna (21 points) and King (12 points) did much of the heavy lifting for the Colby offense.
With 27 points, 12 rebounds and 6 assists, Savage led the Jumbos’ offensive attack. Rogers finished with 25 points and 19 rebounds. Morris and Thoerner finished with 16 and 13 points, respectively, while Cohen chipped in 9 points.
This instant classic is one that won’t soon be forgotten by players, coaches or fans that had the pleasure of being at Cousens Gym yesterday.
“Legendary game,” Savage said. “I’ll never forget it.”
On Saturday, Tufts defeated Trinity 87–73 in the semifinals. After a slow start offensively, the Jumbos took the lead about halfway through the first half. Trinity cut the lead to 35–30 and appeared to be gaining momentum until Cohen took a big charge with about two minutes remaining in the period. Morris canned a three on Tufts’ next offensive possession, and Cousens Gym erupted.
In the second half, the Jumbos’ offense was simply too much for the Bantams to handle. Tufts maintained a steady double-digit lead before finally delivering a knockout punch with a quick 8–0 run. Morris hit consecutive threes 16 seconds apart, giving the Jumbos a 20 point lead with about six minutes to go in the game. Then, on Tufts next offensive possession, Rogers caught the ball in the post, lost his defender and slammed home a two-handed dunk. In the last minutes, Trinity employed an effective full court press and knocked down a few threes, but it was too little too late as Tufts made late free throws and hung on to win.
Rogers and Morris led Tufts in scoring with 17 points each. Savage and Brady joined them in double figures with 15 points and 13 points, respectively.
With the championship victory, Tufts earns an automatic bid to the Div. III NCAA tournament. The seeds will be announced at today’s selection show at 12:30 p.m.
“We want to carry this momentum forward,” Savage said. “We’re very excited about NCAAs, and hopefully we’re going to take that home too.”