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Men's Basketball | Jumbos sneak into playoffs with two thrilling victories

Published: Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Updated: Tuesday, February 18, 2014 11:02

The Jumbos made the playoffs. For an agonizing hour or so, they thought they hadn’t. 

They had just defeated Bowdoin, 66-62, and as they walked off the court they celebrated a ferocious team effort and a two-win weekend that earned them a spot in the NESCAC tournament. In the locker room, music was blaring and water was sprayed like celebratory champagne.

But when head coach Bob Sheldon came in, he suspended the euphoria to tell his players they may have come up short. There was a strange tiebreaker rule, he said, that could leave Tufts in ninth place: one spot too low. He hadn’t realized until earlier that day.

“They were going crazy, and I had to tell them,” Sheldon said. “It was the worst news I think I’ve ever given a team.”

At first, the players thought he was kidding. Once they knew he wasn’t, they left the locker room in a daze. Senior tri-captain Oliver Cohen leaned against a soda machine in the narrow gym hallway and lowered his head. His classmates, fellow tri-captains Kwame Firempong and Andrew Dowton, sought answers from Sheldon. 

A pinnacle moment in their careers had suddenly become rock bottom — the end of the road. When asked to describe their emotions, the three senior captains could only mutter one word: shock.

“It’s sort of how, maybe, our season [has] been,” Firempong said. “Maybe like a foreshadow of how life’s going to be after the season — ups and downs.”

But amid mass confusion, Sheldon and others began to realize that the Jumbos had, in fact, made the playoffs. The win over Bowdoin locked Tufts, Wesleyan and Colby in a three-way tie for seventh place at 4-6 in-conference. Because each of the three teams had one win and one loss against the other two, the head-to-head tiebreaker could not be determined. 

Therefore, by NESCAC rules, the playoff spots would go to the two teams with the best record against the top four seeds in the conference. Colby had one win against the top four. Tufts also had one. Wesleyan had zero.

Since Tufts beat Colby on Friday, the Jumbos took the No. 7 seed while the Mules grabbed No. 8.

Confusing? Definitely. Convoluted? Perhaps. But the Jumbos will play another game. 

“I won’t ever let him live that one down,” Cohen said of Sheldon’s faux pas. “It was so high, to so low, to so high again. Now it’s just back to work.”

Lost in the scramble for clarity was the remarkable fact that the Jumbos had won the game. After defeating Colby in overtime on Friday, they beat a Bowdoin squad that entered Cousens Gymnasium ranked No. 24 nationally by Bowdoin boasted a 19-3 record and the top-ranked defense in the NESCAC

With junior guard Ben Ferris on the bench due to a knee injury sustained on Friday, the Jumbos shot 45 percent on 3-pointers and got the stops they needed in the final minutes to upset the Polar Bears. 

“We knew they rely on their big presence [7-foot junior center John Swords] down low to protect the rim,” Firempong said. “But we just tried to be aggressive up top to create plays, to suck the defense in to the middle and try to kick out to our shooters.” 

Bowdoin, the league’s top 3-point shooting team, made 8 of 18 from beyond the arc. But the Jumbos were always one step ahead thanks to sophomore guard Stephen Haladyna, who matched a career high with 23 points and hit 6 of 9 from downtown. With 12:26 remaining and the score tied at 47, his 3-pointer gave Tufts a lead it would not relinquish.

The Polar Bears had two golden opportunities in the final minute. Down 64-62 with 25 seconds left, senior Andrew Madlinger missed a corner 3-pointer. Then, down 65-62 with three seconds left, sophomore Lucas Hausman missed an open 3-point shot from the top of the key. 

Then came the Jumbos’ celebration; then despair and puzzlement; then, finally, more celebration. 

“We set out at the beginning of the week to get two wins,” Dowton said. “There was no other outcome for us that was acceptable. And we got them.”

Tufts’ win over Bowdoin came on the heels of another heart stopper against Colby on Friday night. The Jumbos trailed much of the way, but heroic efforts by Ferris and freshman center Hunter Sabety kept them afloat. With 1:06 to go in regulation, Cohen lobbed an alley-oop to Sabety to pull the Jumbos within two. Then, after a steal by Ferris, Sabety was fouled and made both free throws to tie the game at 73. Each team missed a shot in the final seconds to send the game to overtime. 

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