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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Following Sabety injury, Jumbos stay afloat in NESCAC

Sophomore guard Tarik Smith shoots a 3-pointer in the second half of the men's basketball team's 80-71 loss to Wesleyan on Jan. 31.

Before its two-game homestand this past weekend, in which it split games against Wesleyan and Conn. College, the men's basketball team received news of the biggest loss -- both literally and figuratively -- of its season when 6' 8" sophomore center Hunter Sabety suffered an apparently serious knee injury. The timetable for Sabety's return is unclear, but according to coach Bob Sheldon, the Jumbos are prepared to move forward without their mammoth inside presence.

"It's a big difference, and we have to learn how to play without him," Sheldon said. "We've got to learn to play more with our smalls, and we will."

Although the team will undoubtedly miss Sabety's team-high 15.4 points per game (PPG), it was the absence of his rebounding presence on both ends of the floor that appeared to be the key factor in Tufts' 80-71 loss to Wesleyan on Saturday.

The Cardinals out-rebounded the Jumbos 42-28, and although they only scored five more second chance points than the Jumbos, it seemed that every Cardinals offensive rebound came at a backbreaking time for the Jumbos.

"Typically when we have two bigs, or me and Hunter at the same time, it's a little bit easier to get a body on someone, and if we don't get a body on someone we can still make up for it with our size," sophomore tri-captain center Tom Palleschi said. "Without him, we didn't do a good job of boxing out at all, and that's a team that crashes the offensive glass incredibly hard."

Both sides had trouble getting going at the start of the game, with the two sides combining to go just 5 of 18 from the field in the first eight minutes. However, with his new lineup adjustment still in place, Sheldon went to the bench early to bring on sophomore point guard Tarik Smith and first-year forward Ben Engvall to help spur on the offense.

Engvall in particular had a strong first half, scoring nine of his 10 points, and hitting a 3-pointer with only 43 seconds to go before halftime to extend Tufts' lead to 36-30. In Sabety's absence, Engvall should see an uptick in minutes, as he gives the Jumbos the ability to stretch the floor while still competing for rebounds on the block.

The second half was a different story for Tufts. Wesleyan, who shot only 33 percent from beyond in the arc in the first half, began exploiting Tufts' 3-2 zone, shooting 44 percent from three in the second half.

On the other end of the floor, Tufts couldn't buy a bucket, failing to score for the first 7:20 of the half.

"We didn't score the first six minutes of the second half," Sheldon said. "We went man-to-man [later in the second half]; our man-to-man was all right. We shouldn't give up 80 points. We've got to be tougher."

By the time Smith hit a 3-pointer at the 12:20 mark, Wesleyan had gone on an 11-0 run. Smith's three cut the lead to 41-39, but Wesleyan did not relinquish its lead for the rest of the game.

The Jumbos did not go away, though, and a scuffle on the floor in which it appeared that Smith got hit in the face by a Cardinals' player energized the Jumbos -- particularly Palleschi, who had to be restrained following the altercation.

Palleschi backed up his talk, scoring Tufts' next seven points en route to a 12-point second half.

"There was that scuffle which obviously made us want to win even more," Palleschi said. "But we should never have to have a scuffle like that to ... bring our intensity up. We should be intense throughout the entire game. But we all kind of banded together, and we tried our best to keep fighting back into it."

After Smith hit two free throws at the 7:37 mark to cut the lead to 54-49 the game was a back and forth affair. However, every time the Jumbos appeared poised to regain the lead, the Cardinals responded.

A layup from junior guard Ryan Spadaford made it a one-point game with 4:59 to play, but Wesleyan's sophomore forward Joseph Kuo hit two layups, both off of offensive rebounds, to push the lead back to five. Kuo terrorized the Jumbos inside all day, grabbing 13 rebounds, six of which came on the offensive end.

Following Kuo's second layup, Tufts refused to go; it put on a full-court press that gave Wesleyan some trouble at the start. However, Wesleyan iced the game at the free throw line, hitting 16 of 18 from the line in the final 2:21.

Palleschi led all scorers with 20 points, and Smith added 15 off the bench for the Jumbos. Wesleyan had four scorers in double figures: Junior guard Joe Edmonds had 18, Kuo had 17, junior tri-captain guard Jack Mackey had 16 and junior guard BJ Davis had 12.

While the game against Wesleyan tested Tufts for the entire 40 minutes, Tufts' 71-57 win over Conn. College was rarely in question.

"Against Conn. College we did a very good job," Palleschi said. "We passed the ball a lot, we got ball reversals and we waited to get a good shot."

Tufts came out fast in the first half, breaking out to a 15-4 lead. But the Camels were able to keep pace for some time, as they cut the lead to 20-18 with a little over seven minutes in the half. It was the Jumbos' game the rest of the way, though, as they took a 34-25 lead into half thanks to nine first-half points from senior tri-captain guard Ben Ferris.

The second half saw the Jumbos break the game open, as they came out of the locker room swinging, scoring the first nine points of the half.

"We have a defensive philosophy where if we get three stops, we call it a 'kill,' and at the start of the second half, we got two straight kills," Palleschi said. "We started off the second half up nine, and within the first three or four minutes we were up 15, and we just kept playing our game ... the halftime was very good for us. We saw the mistakes we made and adjusted, but we also just kept playing how we were playing."

The Jumbos played a much more complete game against the Camels, with 11 players scoring, including 14 points from Ferris and a much needed 12 points, including three 3-pointers, from junior tri-captain guard Stephen Haladyna, who had been struggling with his shot this season.

The next step for the Jumbos, who are now 4-2 in the NESCAC and tied for second place, is to continue to prepare for life without Sabety. According to Palleschi, if Tufts can imitate one of professional basketball's great teams, it should have no problem compensating for the loss of one player.

"As a team, we do a great job in trusting each other," Palleschi said. "I know if I pass to anyone, I have faith in them that they're gonna score or make the right play, and I believe they have the same faith in me. At the beginning of the season, we would watch the YouTube clip 'San Antonio Spurs The Beautiful Game' and we try to model ourselves to that."

Sheldon's only focus for the team is to just stay positive.

"We'll be alright," Sheldon said of the team's outlook for the season. "We're in the middle of things at 4-2. That puts us in the middle of the league. We have two left at home and two on the road, so it'll be a battle, but we'll be ready to go."