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

Men's Basketball | Four Jumbos hit double figures as Tufts' second-half rally overtakes Beavers

If, as they say, lengthy road trips measure basketball teams, then the Tufts men's squad might need an extra ruler or two.

In the midst of an eight-game road swing, the Jumbos won their third straight contest Tuesday night, defeating Maine-Farmington, 78-72. But unlike their convincing double-digit victories over Wheaton and UMass Boston, this game wasn't decided until the final minute.

After an 11-3 Tufts run brought the score to 70-59 with 5:51 left to play, the Beavers were able to chip away at the lead, getting a three-pointer from senior forward Sean Fry to bring the score to 73-72 with only 50 seconds left to play. The Beavers couldn't get over the hump, however, missing their last four shots as Tufts went 5-of-6 from the free-throw line to seal the game.

Junior forward Jon Pierce once again led the team in scoring with 22 points, while junior guard Aaron Gallant, senior guard Jeremy Black and senior tri-captain Jake Weitzen all were in double figures with 14, 12 and 15 points, respectively. All three added five rebounds apiece, with Black also chipping in eight assists. Senior forward Issac Hutchinson led Farmington with 18 points, followed by Fry with 11.

With a 12-9 lead, the Beavers went on a 10-2 run in the first half to build the lead to double digits with 13:18 remaining. The deficit was trimmed down to four at the 1:38 mark, when senior forward Pat Sullivan knocked down a three-pointer, but Farmington took a 39-33 advantage into the locker room.

The game would turn in the Jumbos' favor in first five minutes of the second half, when Pierce scored 10 points during a torrid stretch in which the Jumbos took a 55-52 lead they would never relinquish.

"The biggest change was the full-court press we put on," Gallant said. "It really sped up the tempo of the game. The key to our offense is getting stops on the defensive end."

The Jumbos' press changed the complexion of the game, forcing a slew of Farmington turnovers. The Beavers coughed up the ball nine times in the second half, leading to 13 Tufts points.

The Jumbos will now take their 9-4 record into the NESCAC portion of their schedule, which begins tonight. Tufts is looking to improve on last year's conference record of 5-4, but the competition looks as tight as ever, and the schedule from here on out provides no breaks. Nationally-ranked No. 3 Amherst, the defending Div. III national champion, looms tonight, followed by a Saturday afternoon contest at Trinity.

Over the past few years, Tufts has played Amherst especially tough, with the teams' last three meetings going to overtime. In each of those games, however, the Lord Jeffs have come away with victories. The Jumbos are 8-3 in overtime games over the last three years, but all three losses are to the same team. Last year's lone meeting of the Jeffs and Jumbos ended in a thrilling 96-92 comeback victory for Amherst at Cousens Gym, a loss that still lingers in the minds of this year's Tufts team.

"We lost to them last year in overtime, and then twice in overtime the year before that," Gallant said. "So yeah, we're thinking about it."

The Lord Jeffs are a talented, experienced group, but coach Dave Hixon identifies size as one of their more important attributes. Hixon recently moved 6-foot-7 senior Brandon Jones into his starting five, and Jones dropped a game-high 18 points and nine rebounds on arch-rival Williams in his first career start. Hixon's starting lineup is now 6-10, 6-8, 6-7, 6-6, and one point guard - senior captain Andrew Olson - who is the reigning national Player of the Year.

"I think we present difficult matchup problems for teams with our size," Hixon said. "We've actually gotten bigger from years past."

"We're just going to have to beat them with our quickness," Gallant said. "But most importantly, we have to box out and limit their offensive rebounds."

So far this year, few have been able to contain the Lord Jeffs. All five starters are scoring in double digits, something that Hixon also attributes greatly to his team's unselfishness.

"They've done a great job of just passing the ball to each other," Hixon said. "The scoring wasn't planned like that - it just happened naturally. It just shows how unselfish these kids are, and it doesn't allow teams to just focus on one player."

And while opposing teams can't focus on just one Amherst player, the Jeffs know that they'll have to pay extra attention to Tufts' Pierce.

"He's putting up tremendous numbers," Hixon said. "He's a tremendous athlete, and certainly one of the best players in all of NESCAC. We're going to have to feel out how to defend him as the game goes along. Luckily the games are 40 minutes and not five. Actually, with Tufts, it's usually 45."

While the Jumbos have not beaten Amherst since 2003, they have had more success against Trinity, with wins in the past three contests. The Bantams boast an 11-3 record and are led by the duo of senior big men Robert Taylor and Russ Martin, with each averaging just over 15 points per game.

A year ago, the Jumbos rolled to a 102-85 victory over the Bantams, shooting 57 percent from the field. But Tufts cannot expect such an easy outcome this time around.

"They're a different team and we're a different team, so anything could happen," Gallant said. "We're just going to try and do the best we can."