Just three days after Thanks-giving, the men's basketball team wasted no time getting to the meat of its non-conference schedule.
The Jumbos took on the Brandeis Judges, ranked No. 12 in the nation by D3Hoops.com, yesterday in their home opener at Cousens Gym, and the November showdown provided all the drama of March Madness. The Judges and Jumbos fought through 12 ties and 17 lead changes, and in the end, a last-second Tufts comeback fell just short.
With nine seconds to play, Brandeis sophomore guard Andre Roberson knocked down one of two free throws to give the Judges an 89-87 lead, and from there, it was a mad dash to the other end of the floor. Tufts senior Jeremy Black brought the ball up in a hurry, cut into the lane, and then hit senior tri-captain Jake Weitzen with a lob to the top of the key. Weitzen got off the t as time expired and it came up just short. Brandeis 89, Tufts 87 - final.
"If you have an open three, obviously you want to take it, but they played real tight on me," said Weitzen, who finished with a career-high 28 points in the losing effort. "[Brandeis coach Brian Meehan] knows all of our games really well - he wasn't going to let me get off a clean shot for a three. Jeremy did a good job of going to the basket ... I think we did what we wanted to do; we just got a little unlucky at the end."
It was a disappointing end to a game that was always within reach for the Jumbos. They opened with a 6-0 lead after 22 seconds and they led for most of the second half as well. The Judges only pulled even in the final two minutes, tying the game 80-80 with 1:58 left on a pair of free throws from senior guard Kwame Graves-Fulgham.
A three-point play from sophomore forward Terrell Hollins opened the Brandeis lead from there, and a costly Black turnover gave the Judges the ball back soon after. From then on out, the Jumbos were playing catch-up, and that was a game they couldn't win.
"You have to accentuate the positive," Weitzen said. "You try to look at the bright things, but you don't want to say it's okay that we lost, and you can't be happy with just playing a team close. I think we have a bunch of winners, but it didn't happen for us this time."
The Jumbos can take solace in the fact that Brandeis, a powerhouse in the multi-regional University Athletic Association, improved to 4-0 and bolstered its already-strong national ranking. Playing the Judges down to the final second is a big improvement for a team that lost 96-70 to Bridgewater State in its season opener Nov. 17.
"If you look at the strides that we took in a week, from giving up 96 points to Bridgewater, to turning around and playing well against a very good team, we made big strides," associate head coach Reggie Hobbs said. "We try to stay positive. We've got a ways to go, but we took some big steps today."
Graves-Fulgham led the way with 23 points for the undefeated Judges, while Hollins chipped in 21. Weitzen's 28 for Tufts were accompanied by 25 for junior forward Jon Pierce, who also added six rebounds, a block and a steal. Guards Black and junior Aaron Gallant also reached double figures for the Jumbos, although both ran into trouble with the relentless full-court presses from the aggressive Brandeis defense.
"Usually I think that we handle presses pretty well," Weitzen said. "We had a few turnovers in the first half obviously, but I feel pretty confident with Jeremy breaking the press."
On the defensive end, the Jumbos were strong at times, but inconsistent. The Judges got several open looks from beyond the arc, and the result was an onslaught of Brandeis threes. Graves-Fulgham, who drained three, was one of four Judges to hit from three-point range. Roberson, senior guard Joe Coppens and junior guard Kevin Olson each hit one.
"I think that we played better [defensively], but there's always room for improvement," Weitzen said. "We gave up 89 points. We were a little sloppy - there were a few mishaps, a few cuts under the basket and stuff like that."
After the loss, the Jumbos look to bounce back against MIT in their second home game next weekend. The Engineers took the Jumbos into triple-overtime before finally falling in Cambridge last year, and this time around, Tufts will be ready. MIT (3-1) boasts an All-NEWMAC first-teamer in junior guard Jimmy Bartolotta, who averages 28.8 points through four games this season. Junior forward Billy Johnson adds 16.3.
"They're a good team, and they're very different from this team," Hobbs said of MIT. "They're very disciplined, they have two very good players that really know how to score. We have to prepare for them, but we'll have a week. We'll give a good effort on Saturday and we'll get the W."