After a month-long stretch hampered by tough losses and impeding injuries, the seniors of the men's basketball team earned some redemption this weekend.
Behind a scalding 62 percent shooting effort, Tufts cruised by defending NESCAC champion Williams, a 93-68 romp on Senior Day at Cousens Gym Saturday. The victory, the Jumbos' first conference win of the season, followed an 85-76 loss to Middlebury Friday night.
Although it was Senior Day, it was sophomore forward Dave Beyel who got the Jumbos out to a quick lead over the Ephs, scoring 10 of the first 12 Tufts points. Having struggled recently to come out strong, Tufts felt confident after its quick start.
"We've had some trouble the last couple games getting started, so I just tried to get everybody going and keep the energy up," Beyel said.
Throughout the first half, Tufts used a balanced team offense to attack the Ephs from all different angles. A layup by Jumbo senior tri-captain guard Ryan O'Keefe with 5:39 remaining gave the Jumbos their biggest first half lead at 34-21.
"We played really well as a team, found the open man and just made the extra pass," O'Keefe said.
Defensively, Tufts knew Williams would present a problem with its height advantage, but the Jumbos were effective in both contesting shots and controlling the glass.
"I have to give credit to our big guys," coach Bob Sheldon said. "They did a great job inside pushing and shoving."
Williams appeared to regain confidence as the half wound down, riding a 7-2 run to cut Tufts' lead to seven. But a last-second three-pointer by junior guard Aaron Gallant gave Tufts a 45-35 advantage going into the break.
Beyel led all scorers with 14 at the break, just ahead of senior tri-captain Jake Weitzen's 13, as the Jumbos shot 65.4 percent from the field in the period and hit six of nine three-pointers.
"We made shots, and we got rolling and built that trust," Sheldon said. "The trust has been missing these past few games. Guys were giving up good shots to get great shots."
The second half started off with a bang when two minutes into the period, a thunderous Beyel dunk sparked a 10-3 Tufts run. The run was capped off by a three-pointer from senior point guard Jeremy Black, giving the Jumbos a 58-42 lead.
"Everyone was hitting shots, and people weren't forcing shots," Beyel said. "We hit every open shot we had."
From that point on, the lead never dropped below 13 points as Tufts continued to pour it on. The Jumbos made shots from everywhere on the court, including a Larry Bird impersonation from O'Keefe, shooting from the corner and arcing the ball over the backboard and in.
"When the game's going so well and the adrenaline is pumping, things just seem to go your way," O'Keefe said.
The mood after the game was a stark difference from that of Friday night, when Tufts lost to Middlebury, 85-76.
The Jumbos trailed the entire game, as the Panthers took a 9-2 lead on a layup by junior guard Ben Rudin and never looked back. Throughout the first half, Tufts would do just enough to stay in the game but couldn't manage to claw all the way back.
"Every time we had a good play or stop, they had an answer for us," Weitzen said. "We just couldn't get over the hump."
The trend would continue in the second half. The Jumbos kept the Panthers from pulling away - their deficit did not grow to double digits until the final minute - but never gained substantial ground.
"In the end, we just couldn't come through with the big play," Sheldon said. "We were two evenly matched teams, and we just missed some shots we normally make."
Both teams were dominating the offensive glass, with each grabbing 20 offensive rebounds, compared to 21 defensive rebounds for Middlebury and 20 for Tufts. It was Middlebury, however, that seemed to make the most of its extra opportunities.
"Their big guys kept getting offensive rebounds," Weitzen said. "We would play solid defense for 35 seconds, and then they'd get a second shot, and that's pretty demoralizing."
Offensively, the Jumbos struggled to find a consistent rhythm, often having difficulty getting the ball to their leading scorer, junior forward Jon Pierce.
"They were very aggressive at denying the post, fronting Jon and not letting us dump it in," Weitzen said.
As the game clock went under five minutes to play, Pierce got going, scoring five consecutive points to cut a 10-point Middlebury lead in half with 3:55 left to play.
Tufts then played 34 seconds of high-pressure defense before Middlebury senior co-captain Andrew Harris beat the shot clock with an off-balance three-pointer. Harris' shot banked off the glass and rattled around the rim before finally going down. Harris would finish the night 4-for-5 from beyond the arc.
The deficit would get no smaller than six from there on out, as the Jumbos struggled to find the mark offensively, and the Panthers hit their free throws.
With Saturday's victory, the Jumbos kept their postseason hopes alive and now look ahead to the final weekend of the regular season, when they will travel to Bowdoin and Colby.
Ultimately, the last playoff spot might come down to the winner of the Colby-Tufts matchup, as both teams are 1-6 in conference play. Despite the tough road ahead, Tufts still remains confident.
"With this win we put ourselves in a spot where we can make it to the conference tournament and we can definitely go on a run," O'Keefe said.