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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, March 2, 2024

Jumbos end season with bright look to next year

First-year guard Thomas Lapham in the Tufts' Feb. 21 match-up against Amherst, which the Jumbos lost 92-66.

After securing the fourth seed in the NESCAC tournament, Tufts dreams of a playoff run were quickly dashed in first round with a 92-66 loss to a hot-shooting Amherst team in Cousens Gymnasium on Saturday. The Jumbos ended the season 13-12.

The Lord Jeffs got out to a hot start early led by junior forward Connor Green, and the Jumbos were never able to get back into the game. Green, Amhert’s scoring leader this season,had 29 points on 10-16 shooting and eight rebounds. Amherst shot 56.4 percent from the field and a remarkable 68.4 percent from three, while the Jumbos were unable to find any rhythm, shooting 37.1 percent and 25 percent, respectively. Senior tri-captain guard Ben Ferris was Tufts' leading scorer with 14 points in 27 minutes.

The Jumbos finished the season with the same record as last year, but returned to the NESCAC tournament for the first time since 2013. Tufts’ 6-4 conference record in the regular season was also tied for the second best record the team has had in the NESCAC over the past 10 years. Throughout the regular season, Tufts played superbly against the elite teams in the NESCAC, defeating conference powerhouses such as Trinity and Amherst, while only losing to Bowdoin by three. The anti-climatic ending in the NESCAC tournament did not do justice to how much the team has grown since last year and throughout the season.

Tufts began the season with the immediate problem of former NESCAC Rookie of the Year Tom Palleschi and last year’s star Hunter Sabety next to each other on the floor. Both were post-dominant players who were used to playing around four shooters. Palleschi, a sophomore tri-captain, missed the 2013-2014 campaign with a serious heart concern that threatened to permanently end his basketball career, but he returned in this season in an inspiring turn of events.

The Jumbos struggled to adjust and started the season 2-6. The team then won six of its next seven games to climb up the conference standings. Just as the Jumbos were beginning to figure everything out, they lost Sabety to a knee injury for the remainder of the regular season.

“It was definitely a learning process,” sophomore guard Tarik Smith said. “We learned to play together at the midway and unfortunately dealt with injuries towards the end. We have improved from eighth to fourth in the league and look to keep improving on that.”

Despite not fitting in seamlessly, Sabety and Palleschi led the team in both points and rebounds.Sabety averaged 14.9 points and 7.3 rebounds, while Palleschi averaged 12 points and 6.1 rebounds. Palleschi also led the team with 2.4 blocks per game. The Jumbos also had strong contributions from Smith who averaged 9.9 points per contest and 3.3 assists, and junior guards Ryan Spadaford and tri-captain Stephen Haladyna, who were often tasked with defending the other team's biggest perimeter threats.

Admid the various injuries and line-up changes throughout the season, many different players stepped up for the Jumbos, including many of the younger players who gained invaluable experience. One of the main changes was moving Smith to the bench mid-way through the season. Smith responded in emphatic fashion, scoring 52 points in his next three games and flourishing in lineups that gave him space to carve up opposing defenses.

“We have lots of improvement from last year,” Sabety said. “ We played some tough games and won versus a lot of good teams.”

Tufts is only graduating two seniors this year: guards Ferris and Adam Zakaria. Ferris, a former NESCAC rookie of the year, had to endure injuries and a reduced role on offense following his charmed first two seasons. He adapted to the situation, however, becoming a knock-down shooter and key cog in Tufts' defensive schemes. With just under 900 career points, he will end his career as one of the top scorers during coach Bob Sheldon's reign.

Of the remaining 14 players, 10 are either first-years or sophomores, promising a bright future for the Jumbos. The core three players of Sabety, Palleschi and Smith will all be returning for their third seasons with hopes of getting the Jumbos to another NESCAC tournament and beyond.

They will be joined by a strong cast of role players including classmate Drew Madsen, who made a name for himself as a do-it-all power forward, and first-year guard Thomas Lapham, whose 3-point shooting will be essential in spacing for future Sabety-Palleschi lineups.

“[We] still have lots of work to do for next year as individuals and as a team,” Sabety said. “Everybody has to put 100 percent effort into the off season and the results will show during the season next year.”