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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Men's basketball | Jumbos bounce back from ugly loss to Bridgewater St., open 1-1

When the men's basketball team opened its season at the Brandeis Classic in Waltham, Mass. on Saturday night, it showed exactly the early-season jitters you'd expect from a team that's only been together two weeks. Missed jumpers, sloppy turnovers and inconsistent defense spelled the Jumbos' demise as they fell 96-70 to Bridgewater State.

Less than 24 hours later, those jitters were gone.

The Jumbos bounced back with a solid defensive effort, holding the Kenyon Lords to a 26-point first half. They emerged with a 69-63 win in the Classic finale, showcasing their early-season improvement and buoying their record to 1-1.

"It showed what this team's got, and that's character," coach Bob Sheldon said after Sunday's win. "We just played a really good game today ... It was a totally different game; you would have thought it was a completely different team."

The numbers are there to support Sheldon. After a 27-turnover melee against the Bears Saturday night, the Jumbos regained their focus and limited offensive miscues to 15. After giving the Bears open shots - to the tune of a 54 percent shooting percentage - they held the Lords under 40 percent. And after Bridgewater State threatened the century mark in a lights-out second half Saturday, the Tufts defense fell into place against Kenyon the following afternoon.

"The focus has to be there on defense," said junior Jon Pierce, the team's leading scorer through two games. "We played bad offensively [Saturday] and still ended up with 70 points. But we have to be accountable - every single person, myself included - in finding a way to stop people and just take pride in that. We'll let the offense take care of itself."

And on Sunday, both ends of the floor took care of themselves. Not only did the Jumbos shut down Kenyon's offense, but their offense came to life as well. Senior tri-captain Ryan O'Keefe rebounded from a four-point opening night performance to shoot 9-of-15 on Sunday for a game-high 25 points, including the 1,000th of his career.

But O'Keefe's performance reveals a continued reliance on the team's outside shooting, and the Jumbos will need to diversify their offense to keep their momentum going.

"We relied on the three a little bit too much both nights, and we need to work on that," Sheldon said. "It's going to be important [this season], but I think today we made it a little bit too important."

The team will rely on Pierce and senior tri-captain Jake Weitzen to propel the offense, as both will be rotating in and out of the paint trying to create open looks. Both hit double figures in scoring in each game this weekend.

"We want the offense to work inside-out," Pierce said. "That doesn't mean that we want Jake and myself taking all the shots, but we want to give Jake and me a look and help that to open up the floor for other kids. We feel that if teams are going to single-cover us, then we'll have an advantage. And if they start to double or switch onto us, then other kids are going to get open shots. We all trust each other."

But that trust was in jeopardy Saturday, as Tufts broke down on both sides of the ball against Bridgewater State. The game looked promising for Tufts early on as Pierce flicked the opening tip to senior Jeremy Black, who found sophomore Bryan Lowry for the quick bucket, and seconds later a Black steal and a Pierce three made it 5-0. But from there, everything unraveled.

"I don't know what happened," Sheldon said. "We broke down everywhere. [Bridgewater State] came out really hard, and us not having any scrimmages or anything, it makes it really hard for us to have that intensity. They got going and they got on a roll, and we couldn't get back from it."

The Bears aren't the most physical of teams - two of their starters are under six feet, and the team lacked a strong interior presence - but the Jumbos still struggled in the post.

"We did a poor job of getting the ball inside," Pierce said. "They wanted to play behind, and the few times we got the ball inside, we were able to score or get fouled pretty easily. When we have a team that can't guard us inside, we have to make a concentrated effort to get to the block."

Pierce himself was the Jumbos' bright spot in the losing effort, pouring in 22 points and 11 rebounds, both game highs. Weitzen was slow to establish his role as the other half of the Jumbos' one-two punch, however; he scored 10 points but got into early foul trouble. He fouled out with 3:23 left in the game.

"Jon's a double-double every night, and I thought that in the first half, we didn't go to him enough," Sheldon said. "But Jake got in foul trouble early on, and that handcuffed him. We've got to have some rebounds from him."

But when Pierce, Weitzen and O'Keefe are all on, the Jumbos are tough to beat. Their next big test awaits them Sunday, as the team returns from its Thanksgiving break to take on Brandeis in its home opener at Cousens Gym. The Judges are 2-0 after cruising through their home invitational.

"I think we match up well with them," Sheldon said. "It's our first home game, and we still kind of have to establish our identity. We'll see."