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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Men's basketball sinks in a night to remember

While not nearly as devastating as the Titanic's 1912 voyage, the men's basketball team's season alternately awed us, anguished us, and touched us. The Jumbos' ship finally sunk in Saturday's shocking 85-84 loss to the Conn College Camels, bringing sudden end to Tufts' season. While the Titanic's builders could not pick up the pieces from their disaster and regroup, the Jumbos - minus five seniors - will be back next year to try again.

Tufts, down by as many as 14 in the second half, managed to muster one last run to save the season and, with 2:49 remaining, sophomore shooting guard Brian Shapiro (11-18 for 28 points) hit yet another basket to put his team on top 82-80. After struggling for much of the second half of the season, Shapiro found his shot in his team's final two games, and nearly willed the Jumbos to victory.

"He hit a cold rut for a long part of the season," senior power forward Fred Pedroletti said. "But of course you can never count him out. He went off in one of the biggest games of the season. He was awesome and he proved he was the real deal."

With 2:07 left in the game, senior Bobby Mpuku (5-9 for 14 points and 6 assists) knocked down one of two free throws, extending the lead to 83-80. Then the Camels' junior guard, Isiah Curtis, responded at the 1:25 mark, popping a jumper to bring Conn. College within in one, at 83-82. The two teams exchanged free throws, setting up Rich Futia's miracle shot.

If this had been Division I basketball, Futia's shot would have been replayed time and time again. Perhaps it would have received a name such as "the shot" which Michael Jordan hit as a North Carolina Tar Heel to bring the championship to Chapel Hill. Instead, only the players and the 800 fans who attended the game will remember the tip that killed the Jumbos. With 3.3 seconds left, Curtis leapt for the heavens and tipped in Curtis' wild three-point attempt.

"They called a timeout and then this random dude shot a three, and we were like 'awesome he's not gonna make it,'" Pedroletti said. "He jacked up a three and missed it and the ball bounced and they tipped it. [Futia] was way up there for the rebound. He was head and shoulders above everyone on the court."

"He jumped over the back of two of our players," sophomore Lee Neugebauer said. "The referees were afraid to call anything in the tight situation."

After Futia's shot, the Jumbos had one last chance to save their season, calling a timeout to set up a play for Shapiro, who had been carrying the team all weekend. The plan was for Shapiro to inbound the ball to Mpuku and then run off a double screen for the game winner. Instead the Camels swarming defense nearly forced a five second violation, and while Tufts succeeded in getting the ball inbounds, Conn. College intercepted the pass, ending the Jumbos' season.

The Jumbos' loss, can be attributed to three key factors: porous defense, poor free throw shooting, and the absence of freshman sensation Phil Barlow, the team's third leading scorer (11.0 ppg). Tufts allowed Conn. College to shoot 52.3 percent for the game, while the Jumbos shot a dismal 53.8 percent from the charity stripe in the second half, and only 64 percent for the game.

"Our main objective throughout [the past] week was to get back to our defensive wizardry," Pedroletti said. "[Their shooting] was a remarkable sight. If I were a fan and not on the other team I would have liked to have watched that. They were shooting the lights out and playing tough D."

There was a clear discrepancy in terms of free throw shooting from the first half (75 percent) to the second (53.8 percent) for the Jumbos, but the team felt that nerves were not a factor in the huge drop-off.

"I don't think nervousness was the factor for the missed free throws," Neugebauer said. "I think it was just fatigue."

"Towards the latter part of the season free throws have been a problem," Pedroletti said. "We tried to improve that because we knew it was going to come up and bite us. Unfortunately, it had to come down to that. Free throws definitely do make a difference in the game. They just didn't roll our way."

Barlow had injured his shoulder during last Tuesday's practice and had trouble moving his arm past his head. To make matters worse, late for an exam on Thursday, the speedy young guard, in a mad dash for class, slammed the door on a finger of his shooting hand.

"He wasn't cleared to play, so there was no chance of him pulling a Willis Reed," Pedroletti said.

Perhaps the Conn. College fiasco could have been avoided, had the Jumbos been able to pull out a victory against the Wesleyan Cardinals on Friday night. Instead, Tufts stumbled from the get-go, falling behind 49-38 at the half on the way to a 94-91 loss.

"It was difficult because it was a situation where we had to get a win," Pedroletti said. "We knew that this was the easier of the two [games]. We were way off as a team going into the game. It was hard to get out of the rut. We kind of did a little too late. It was a game we definitely thought we could have won."

Despite solid contributions from Shapiro (8-17 for 24 points), Flaherty (5-13 for 23 points), and sophomore Kyle Van Natta (4-5 for 13 points), the team could not establish itself until the second half, when it outscored the Cardinals by 53-45 margin.

"It was definitely morbid," Pedroletti said. "It was more of a shock because the game was finished. It we lost in a blowout we would have already been in that mood. The fact that we had it and we were literally a foot away - it was really a matter of shock. We should have won and we didn't. It was a good feeling knowing we finished our careers going 110 percent."