It was looking like the men’s basketball team was going to make a quick exit from the NCAA Div. III tournament on Friday night. Down 46–27 at halftime,Tufts’ offense was completely shut down by Western Connecticut State University’s press defense.
But after a second half comeback and a win on Saturday night against the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) Engineers, the Jumbos — in their sixth NCAA tournament appearance — advanced through the first two rounds of the tournament to the Sweet 16 next weekend.
Saturday’s second round matchup in Cousens Gym was a much calmer affair than the night before. The Jumbos went up 38–28 at the end of the first half behind 11 points off the bench from first-year guard Dylan Thoerner and eight points from junior center and NESCAC Player of the Year Luke Rogers.
“We ran our stuff,” coach Bob Sheldon said. “I think we controlled the game right from the beginning.”
The Engineers came out with intensity in the second half, chipping away at the Jumbos’ lead. About nine minutes into the half, first-year Jonny Angbazo drained a 3 to tie the score at 48. On the next Jumbo possession, senior guard and co-captain Eric Savage quickly hit a three of his own, which kicked off an 8–0 run.
“Our team has been playing like that,” Sheldon said about the run. “They’ve been playing with some confidence and a little swag.”
The Jumbos held on to the lead for the next six minutes. But the Engineers threatened again, pulling within three, 63–60, with a fast break layup from sophomore guard Dom Black, who was fouled on the play and hit his free throw.
That was all the Engineers could do, as the Jumbos scored some insurance on free throws. With just over a minute left and the score 66–60, the Engineers fumbled a pass out of bounds on a crucial possession. On their next possession, Savage blocked a layup attempt from Black, which secured the Jumbos’ victory.
At the final buzzer, the Jumbos walked off the court with a 75–66 victory and a ticket to the Sweet 16. Savage was Tufts’ leading scorer with 19 points, and Rogers and Thoerner each kicked in 17. Black led RPI with 22 points.
Just 24 hours earlier, the Jumbos were on the brink of elimination in the first-round game. The team had no answer for Western Connecticut State’s havoc-wreaking press: In the first half alone, the Jumbos turned over the ball 18 times.
“I blacked that out,” Sheldon said. “They’re not like anybody we play.”
The second half of the game turned out to be a completely different story, as the Jumbos started to click on offense and beat the press, while also turning to a zone defense at the end of the game. Behind big plays from Rogers, Thoerner, sophomore guard Tyler Aronson and sophomore guard Carson Cohen, the Jumbos chipped away at the 19-point deficit.
“I just told [the team] don’t panic,” Sheldon said about his halftime adjustments. “We changed our press offense. We’ll just chip away and go a little bit at a time.”
The shift was clear right away: Cohen kicked off the half with a 3, and Aronson followed with a layup. The Colonials retained the lead, however, going up by as much as 19 again. First-year guard Casey McClaren began to shift the momentum for the Jumbos with just over 12 minutes remaining, draining a 3 and driving in on a fast break for a layup to cut the lead to 57–45 and forcing a Colonials timeout.
Aronson made two 3s with about eight minutes remaining to bring the Jumbos’ deficit to single digits, 62–53. After a Tufts timeout, Savage threw down a monster dunk and hit his and one to bring the score to 62–56.
Western Connecticut State recovered pulled ahead again with a double-digit lead. With 3:08 remaining, Cohen made a 3 for Tufts, and Sheldon immediately took a timeout. The Jumbos came out with a press of their own, which resulted in a 3-point play for Thoerner, which brought the score to 72–66. Rogers took it from there, scoring six straight points to tie the game at 72.
The Colonials could not convert on their final possession, and with the score tied, fouled Carson. In front of the packed house at Cousens Gym, Carson calmly nailed his two free throws, and with only seconds left, the Jumbos secured a 74–72 victory.
“At no point did we go apart at all,” Rogers said in a postgame press conference on Friday. “We stood together and believed in each other. That’s what great friends will do.”
While the Colonials outscored the Jumbos 46–27 in the first half, the Jumbos completely flipped the script and outscored the Colonials 47–26 in the second half. Rogers (15 points) and Cohen (14 points) led scoring for the Jumbos, while sophomore guard Ahmod Privott (21 points) and senior forward Fenton Bradley (19 points) led the Colonials.
Notably, junior guard Brennan Morris, one of the team’s top 3-point shooters who averages 12 points per game, was inactive this weekend. Contributions from younger players such as Thoerner proved to be crucial in both games.
“[Thoerner] steps up tremendously when the big lights are on,” Savage said in a press conference on Saturday.
Tufts now looks ahead to Friday’s game against SUNY Brockport, a team that is coming off a close win against a familiar NESCAC foe, Middlebury. In 2017, the last time Tufts qualified for the NCAA tournament, the team reached the Sweet 16; in 2016, the team reached the Elite Eight. The host for Friday’s game has yet to be determined.
However the Jumbos finish, it will be a significant improvement upon last year’s dismal 12–14 season. According to Savage, the team has been trusting the process.
“It was a two-year plan — we knew that at the start of last year,” Savage said in the press conference. “Once the team pieces came together and once our friendship really blossomed, we were tough to stop.”