Last night the only undefeated team remaining in Div. III men's basketball, the UMass Dartmouth Corsairs, rode into Cousens Gym fresh off an 88-69 shellacking of Southern Maine Saturday, the 19th win of their perfect season.
They left with number 20.
UMD jumped out to a monstrous early lead, 25-9 by the time Tufts called a much-needed timeout with 13:18 remaining in the first half, and never looked back from there. The Corsairs led 50-36 at the half and never let the Jumbos closer than eight points after the break, eventually icing an 86-74 win, leaving one duly impressed Tufts coach Bob Sheldon.
"They're the definition of a team," Sheldon said. "There's no one superstar - they all do their jobs, they all score, they all rebound. They're the true definition of a team. When you're seniors, and you've been together for a few years, that's how it all clicks."
All five Corsair starters scored in double figures. Junior co-captain Reece Freeman led the way with 24 on 11-of-16 shooting, while three seniors - A.J. Tavares, co-captain Dan Holbrook and Cory Tynes - added 19, 17 and 11, respectively. Freshman Brandon Stephens chipped in 10.
The 5-foot-11 shooting guard Tavares led the way early on, scoring nine points in the game's first six minutes en route to a game-high 14 in the first half. A Tavares layup at the 14:09 mark made the UMD lead 20-9 before a Tynes layup and Stephens three piled it on.
"That's the way, ever since Christmas break, that it's been," said junior forward Jon Pierce, who churned out 25 and 10 for the Jumbos in a losing effort. "We just come out flat. We find ourselves in 12-point holes, 10-point holes, 14-, 16-point holes. When we wake up after five minutes, we're like, 'All right, we can play with anyone.' But once we get buried like that, it's really tough to fight all the way back. We really need to focus as a starting group on coming out with more energy and more focus."
The point guard Freeman took over toward the end of the first half, scoring 11 points in nine minutes before the break. Freeman, who ranks among Div. III's top five nationally in both assists and steals, took charge on both ends of the floor. He quarterbacked the Corsairs' lightning-quick offense on one end, and on the other, he wrought havoc on the Jumbos' point guards. Senior Jeremy Black and freshman Matt Galvin combined for five assists and eight turnovers.
"He's good," Sheldon said of Freeman. "We backed off of him a little bit, and he was quick, and he got to the basket. But part of that is that you've got to deal with Dan Holbrook. You've got to give up something."
Freeman had open looks from all over the floor because Sheldon had his guards helping Pierce in the paint, double-teaming the Corsairs' superstar big man Holbrook. In the face of constant defensive pressure, Holbrook still turned in 17 points, seven rebounds and three assists.
"We felt like we had a good game plan [against Holbrook]," Pierce said. "He isn't as versatile as some of the big men that I'm used to guarding - he couldn't really step out and do anything outside the block. But if we let him catch the ball on the block, he caused us some problems. So we were really just trying to deny him post position the whole time, and I feel like we did a pretty good job of that."
The Jumbos answered in the post not only with Pierce's big night, but with 11 points and eight boards from senior tri-captain Jake Weitzen. Weitzen helped keep the Jumbos in the game in the second half while two guards, junior Aaron Gallant and senior tri-captain Ryan O'Keefe, turned in 13 points apiece for a Tufts team that refused to die quietly in the second half.
"We're 10-10, and we could have just quit," Sheldon said. "They're the number two team in the nation. But you take away the first 10 minutes, and I think we're even with them."
The Jumbos' inability to start strong has also plagued them in their NESCAC slate. Tufts opened up down 10-0 and later 21-6 Friday night against Conn. College, and against Amherst Jan. 18, the Lord Jeffs held early leads of 24-10 and 30-13. Now sitting in last place at 0-5 in the NESCAC, the Jumbos need to turn things around in a hurry against Middlebury tomorrow night.
"We're playing at home," Sheldon said. "Let's just take it one game at a time. Come in, play Middlebury - and not give up, not point fingers and still be a team ... We're looking at the big picture. We haven't given up on this year - I'm not yanking out all the seniors and playing all the young guys. We're still trying to win these four games."
After taking on the Panthers at Cousens tomorrow, the Jumbos turn to a Saturday afternoon tilt with Williams, followed by a two-game Maine swing next weekend, as the regular season closes with Tufts taking on Bowdoin and Colby.
"It's do or die," Pierce said. "That's pretty much all it is. These seniors have four games left to get it together and have a shot at making the tournament. We win all four, and we have a shot; we win three, and maybe. But we lose more than one of these games, and we're done. We've talked about that. We talked about it in the locker room after tonight's game. Really, this is it.
"There's nothing left to say at this point. Everything's been said. It's time to stop talking and find a way to get wins."