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

Jumbos, Lord Jeffs prepare for NESCAC matchup

The possible return of sophomore center Hunter Sabety has the rest of the NESCAC on edge.

The stage is set for the men’s basketball NESCAC quarterfinals match-up at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 21 between the Jumbos and the Amherst Lord Jeffs. Although Amherst finished 18-6 compared to Tufts’ record of 13-11, both teams ended 6-4 in the conference and Tufts beat Amherst handedly back  in January, securing home court advantage for the first round of the postseason.

This time, however, Tufts may have to play without its star center sophomore Hunter Sabety.Although Sabety was cleared to play on Tuesday, it is still up in the air whether he will be able to compete in Saturday's game. Sabety led the Jumbos with 15.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game in 14 contests this season.

When the teams first met on Friday, Jan. 16, the circumstances were slightly different. Tufts traveled to Amherst with a disappointing 5-7 record, but was coming off a surprising upset over a 9-1 Middlebury team. Amherst, on the other hand, had begun its season 10-3 and was fresh off a victory against Wesleyan. Entering that Friday, the Lord Jeffs had not lost a home game against a NESCAC opponent since 2010.

Tufts went on to dominate the game -- an 80-53 win -- with 49 percent shooting from the field and 56 percent from three. Sophomore guard Tarik Smith and Sabety led the way with 18 and 14 points, respectively. It would end up being Amherst’s worst loss of the season.

Amherst has since closed out the season on an 8-2 run, good enough to propel them to the third best overall record in the NESCAC. Lord Jeffs' junior guard Connor Green has been especially effective this season, leading Amherst with 16.7 points per game along with 6.3 rebounds per contest.

Green acknowledges the boost the loss to Tufts gave to the Amherst squad.

“Coming in to this year we had a lot of new faces making major contributions to the team, which led to growing pains and a few tough losses,” Green told the Daily in an email. “Those losses, especially the one at home against Tufts, were blessings in disguise. They exposed our weaknesses and gave us extra motivation in the following games.”

Tufts has also played well following its win against Amherst, going 7-4. Three of those four losses came without Sabety, who suffered a knee injury on Jan. 24. The Jumbos finished conference play with a 2-2 record against the top five teams in the NESCAC, finishing fourth in the conference standings.

Saturday, however, will present a new set of challenges for both teams. Although the Jumbos were able to beat the Lord Jeffs at Amherst, the Lord Jeffs have proven over the season that they play slightly better on the road, with an .800 win percentage on the road compared to .714 win percentage at home. This will be the first time in four years the Lord Jeffs enter the NESCAC tournament as anything less than the No. 1 seed. 

On the Tufts side, it must prepare for its biggest game thus far without Sabety. Coach Sheldon acknowledged that because of Sabety’s potential absence, the Jumbos may have to approach Amherst slightly differently this time around.

“We had a little bit of a different plan because back then Hunter [Sabety] was 100 percent,” Sheldon said. “We’re going to go with the same basic game plan, but we have just had to tweek it a little bit.”

Although Sabety may not be able to play on Saturday, the Jumbos are a well-rounded and talented team that have proven they can win without him over the course of the season. Former NESCAC rookie of the year, sophomore tri-captain forward Tom Palleschi, has been a top contributor all season, and his team-leading 2.3 blocks per game should allow the Jumbos to continue to protect the rim.

Sophomore guard Tarik Smith and junior guard Ryan Spadaford will also be key contributors for the Jumbos. Smith has picked up his play significantly in the second half of the season, leading the team in assists (3.3 per game) and points (10.3 points per game) on 42 percent shooting.

“I feel good that we have a week to prepare for a playoff game,” Smith said. “I'm also excited about having a home game because we will have some great fans there.”

Sheldon also feels that the Jumbos are up to the challenge.

“We are ready,” Sheldon said. “We beat them before at Amherst. We’ve been playing hard and everybody’s on the same page. We’re confident and we get to play at home in front of all our Jumbo fans. So I’m excited about it.”

Green expressed similar views for the match-up.

“I think we've found our identity and have been playing good basketball lately,” Green said. “I'm excited for what's in store this weekend.”

Tufts and Amherst will face off at 2 p.m. at Cousens Gym on Saturday. The winner will move on to the NESCAC semifinals and most likely play top seeds Trinity, Bowdoin or Bates.