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Men's Basketball | Late-game slide leaves Tufts at a loss in conference opener

Published: Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Updated: Wednesday, January 15, 2014 08:01


Caroline Geilling / The Tufts Daily

The Jumbos returned to campus from winter break healthier than they had been all season, ready to move past a stretch of three losses in four games and eager to charge full steam ahead into their conference schedule. So far though, all has not gone as planned. 

After their game scheduled for Jan. 4 at Newbury College was postponed until tonight, the Jumbos broke a 29-day hiatus when they played at Rhode Island College last Thursday. They lost, 56-55. Then, on Sunday, Tufts began NESCAC play at Middlebury, where the Panthers pulled away late and the Jumbos fell, with a final score of 80-66.

Junior Ben Ferris, the Jumbos’ leading scorer last year, returned from a hip injury to play his first two games of the season, and sophomore Stephen Haladyna, who was averaging 10 points in seven games this season, came back from a bout of mononucleosis. The band was back together.

“I guess it’s pretty much like a new season for us,” freshman point guard Tarik Smith, who played 15 minutes Sunday, said. “Now [Ferris and Haladyna] are both back and we have to adjust. The rotations are gonna be different and minutes are gonna be different. We’re trying to figure that out on the fly.”

The newly-recovered guards both struggled from the field against Rhode Island College, and while Ferris played well in his Vermont homecoming at Middlebury, it was not enough. Now the Jumbos (6-6) have fallen to .500 for the first time all season, and, perhaps more importantly, they are 0-1 in conference play. 

“We’re kind of approaching the rest of the season as, ‘every game’s important,’ but the most important thing for us is NESCAC play,” senior tri-captain point guard Oliver Cohen said. “Me personally, I’m looking at it like we’re 0-1 right now.” 

The Jumbos played well for about four-fifths of Sunday’s game against the Panthers, holding a narrow lead most of the way. But in the final 8:31, Tufts failed to make a field goal and scored only two points to Middlebury’s 20. A key factor was the Panthers’ ability to silence freshman center Hunter Sabety down the stretch. Sabety dominated inside in the first half, scoring 16 points on 8-of-8 shooting. But he did not score for the rest of the game, attempting just one shot and missing four free throws. 

Unable to execute successful entry passes to Sabety, the Jumbos struggled in their half-court sets. They finished 5-of-21 (24 percent) on three-pointers, while the Panthers were 7-of-15 (47 percent) on threes. Tufts was also outperformed at the free-throw line, where they were 11-of-21 (52 percent) and Middlebury was 25-of-31 (81 percent).

“Middlebury’s a really good defensive team, so I guess they were able to impose their will on us defensively,” Cohen said. “But we can’t get away from our identity, which is running the ball, being up-tempo, getting out in transition.”

Tufts was the better team for much of the game thanks to a tenacious effort around the rim. The Jumbos led at halftime, 38-35, dominating the Panthers, 10-2, on the offensive boards. Sabety was scoring at will in the low post. 

Tufts continued to play well early in the second half, leading by as many as seven points with less than 15 minutes to play. Ferris did all he could to keep his team on top, scoring 13 second-half points, including Tufts’ last eight points. 

But while the Jumbos shot 27 percent in the final 20 minutes, the Panthers shot 52 percent and staked a claim to the paint. Sophomore forward Matt Daley, coming off the bench for Middlebury, flipped the script on Sabety and the Jumbos. After scoring just two points in five first-half minutes, he scored 13 in the second half while helping keep Sabety at bay.

“In the first half we were looking inside a lot more to [Sabety] because he was playing really well,” Smith said. “In the second half they began to double him whenever we would give the ball to him, and it was hard to enter the ball in. 

“I think that’s the time where, as a point guard, I have to be more aggressive and make an effort to really get to the paint and create for others,” Smith added. 

Ultimately, one statistic told the story: In the final 8 minutes and 31 seconds, Middlebury outscored Tufts, 20-2.

“In that time we pretty much just lost composure,” Smith said. “We lost a couple calls, we missed a couple shots, and in that time Middlebury started making their shots. We pretty much folded with about five minutes left in the game.”

“You can’t win games like that,” Cohen said.

Five Panthers reached double-figures in scoring. Senior Joey Kizel led the way  with 17; Daley and juniors Dylan Sinnickson and Hunter Merryman had 15 apiece; and freshman Matt St. Amour had 12.

Ferris finished with a game-high 20 points; Sabety scored 16, all in the first half; and senior Kwame Firempong had 11.

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