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

Men's basketball | Monster second half lifts Tufts over MIT

Through one leg of the Triple Overtime Reunion Tour, the men's basketball team is back on track.

One year after last season's Dec. 2 meeting with the MIT Engineers, in which the Jumbos needed three extra sessions to polish off an 88-81 win, Tufts responded with authority in Saturday afternoon's rematch. Tufts now heads into tomorrow's matchup with Keene State - another team it fought to three overtimes last season - fresh off an 83-67 win over the Engineers at Cousens Gym.

All five Tufts starters reached double figures in scoring, led by junior Jon Pierce with 18. After trailing by as many as 12 points midway through the first half, the Jumbos fought back and buried MIT with a dominating second-half performance. So much for triple OT.

"We didn't feel like we played very well last year, and we ended up stealing a win at their place," said senior guard Jeremy Black, who drained five threes to finish with a season-high 16 points. "So this year we had something to prove - that we were the better team."

MIT came out aggressive from the start, utilizing an early full-court press and showing an intensity unmatched by the Jumbos in the opening minutes. Tufts senior tri-captain Ryan O'Keefe was unstoppable early on, scoring six of the Jumbos' first eight. Tufts went up 8-6 on his hot hand, but the Engineers took over from there.

At 6-foot-7, junior Hamidou Soumare was a monster inside for the Engineers, scoring and grabbing rebounds in the paint with ease, while junior Billy Johnson and senior Will Mroz each hit two threes to put MIT ahead. A three from junior Jimmy Bartolotta put the Engineers up 32-20 with 7:37 left in the half.

Bartolotta entered the game as New England's leading scorer, averaging 27 points per game and ranking among the NEWMAC's top 10 in virtually every statistical category. On paper, he was a terror, but on the floor Saturday, the Jumbos had an answer on both sides of the floor.

"We attacked him," coach Bob Sheldon said. "We went at him with Ryan, and on the very first play of the game we went backdoor on him. Part of our game plan was to attack him, and another part was not to do anything special on defense because a lot of teams double[-team] him. But he came in averaging five or six assists, also - and there's no way he got that because we played him straight up."

Down 12 in the first half, the Jumbos charged back. Black and senior tri-captain Jake Weitzen were instrumental in the comeback, but the bench chipped in a big way. A trio of sophomores - Tom Selby, Dave Beyel and Bryan Lowry - played solid minutes in the first half, while graduate tri-captain Ross Trethewey and senior forward Pat Sullivan added veteran leadership.

"The last five minutes in the first half, some guys came off the bench and made some really good plays," Black said. "Ross came in and gave us great minutes, so did Pat Sullivan, and also Tom Selby came in and was a big inside presence for us. I think that was the big difference. And in the second half, our starters picked up for the rest of the guys, and our shots kept dropping."

Pierce was huge in the second half, pouring in 14 of his game-high 18 points in the final 20 minutes. Weitzen added five in the second half to finish with 12.

"Where Jake and I have an advantage is that we're not only one-dimensional players, where we have to be posting up to be effective," Pierce said. "We feel like we can hang on the outside and get dribble-drives, which we did today, or threes, which we hit a couple of in the second half. So if teams are going to take our inside post presence away, then we feel like we're versatile enough to step outside and hit shots."

Black played 30 of the game's 40 minutes for the Jumbos, finishing just short of a double-double by adding nine assists to his 16-point effort. Finally out of the shadow of former tri-captain Dave Shepherd, Black is the new team workhorse at the point, and he's beginning to emerge as a fourth scoring option behind Pierce, Weitzen and O'Keefe.

"With so much focus being on the three scoring options, Jeremy has an opportunity to step up," Pierce said. "He's a great shooter. When he goes up for that three on a fast break, it's no problem. I have full confidence that it's going in."

With the Engineers behind them, the Jumbos now look ahead to tomorrow night's game at Keene State. The Owls are nationally ranked at No. 19, and they're led by a fourth-team preseason All-American in junior forward Tyler Kathan. Last season, they came within two points of an Elite Eight berth in the NCAA Tournament before falling to Little East rival Rhode Island College.

Last season's Tufts-Keene State game was a triple-overtime slugfest in which eight of the teams' 10 starters fouled out and the teams threatened the all-time NCAA fouls record with 75 in the game, including two technicals. The Jumbos won the mess of a game 118-109, and they also emerged with a three-point squeaker in New Hampshire two years ago.

"They're a run-and-gun team," said Black, who dropped 11 points on the Owls last season. "They're very similar to us. They like to put the ball up - they like to take the first shot they have. The last two years it's been two exciting games, so we're excited to go over there and play hard."

"They run it and shoot it, and we run it and shoot it," Sheldon added. "It's always a fun game."