In what might be the most exciting game of the season so far, Tufts traveled to nationally ranked Middlebury College for the second time with one thing on its mind: revenge. With the 72–56 January loss to the Panthers still fresh in their minds, the Jumbos came out and played one of their best games of the season, getting their revenge on the Panthers with a gritty 89–80 double-overtime win in the first round of the NESCAC playoffs.
Having lost out on an opportunity to host a first-round game after losing to Wesleyan the previous weekend, Tufts was presented with an opportunity to avenge one of their earlier losses in the season.
“We had a good game plan to deal with one of their best players and we threw a lot of different looks at them,” senior guard Tyler Aronson said. “So I think we were really well prepared. We had a good week of practice, and I think guys were just ready to go for this big game.”
In a game where neither team held a double-digit lead, this game was truly a nail-biter from start to finish. A close first half saw Tufts go into the locker room with a 1-point lead before the back-and-forth continued in the second half. A 4-point lead for Tufts with 37 seconds to go was erased as Middlebury tied the game at 65 in the final seconds, sending the contest to overtime.
The first overtime saw Tufts never fall behind, but also unable to find a winner. The second overtime was a different story, as a 10–1 run put the game out of reach, with Tufts icing the game on six consecutive free throws.
Senior guard Dylan Thoerner led all scorers with 30 points, with 11 of those coming from crucial free throws. Multiple seniors also had big contributions in the game, including Aronson with 11 points and four rebounds, senior guard Carson Cohen with 10 points and five rebounds and senior guard Theo Henry with 8 points off the bench.
Aside from being leading contributors, this group of seniors are natural leaders, setting an example for the rest of the team on and off the court.
“They really set the tone for our group,” head coach Brandon Linton said. “Not just in-game … but behind the scenes in practice, in team meetings, film … all those guys have been elite in terms of their approach and preparation. ”
Behind the seniors is a strong group of underclassmen who have been able to make meaningful in-game contributions from the moment they stepped on campus. First-years forward Scott Gyimesi and center Joshua Bernstein both came off the bench to score 6 and 8 points, respectively. More importantly, however, the two combined to grab 21 rebounds, nearly half of the 45 total rebounds Tufts grabbed on the day.
“They both are super coachable, both very competitive,” Linton said. “They just bring a nice level of toughness and aggression for our team that we sorely, sorely need.”
Tufts also went near perfect from the freethrow line, shooting 22–26 as a team, compared to Middlebury’s 19–30 free-throw shooting. Tufts also committed 11 turnovers while scoring 17 points off 14 Middlebury turnovers.
“We spend a lot of time at the free-throw line and I know guys get in the gym by themselves, getting extra shots and always focusing on making the free ones,” Aronson said. “We all know what we need to do in our role and one of those things is not turning the ball over so they can't get any transition offensive opportunities.”
Grinding out tough wins has become common for Tufts this season. Linton praised the team’s ability to stay calm in tough situations.
“We knew adversity was gonna hit multiple times throughout the game and every time we stay focused on what our response was,” Linton said. “Everything we want is on the other side of hard so, it was good to see our guys stay grounded.”
This statement win against Middlebury in the playoffs provides a big confidence boost as Tufts heads into this championship weekend at Williams. Aronson discussed what the win meant for a team that has been slept on nationally all season due to the strong seasons of rivals such as the Continentals.
“Middlebury was the big bad player in the NESCAC and taking them down makes us feel pretty good,” Aronson said. “I think we were waiting for our signature win this year for people to start respecting us more on a national scale.”
While the Jumbos certainly enjoyed their big win over the weekend, this week it is back to preparations as they prepare to face the NESCAC No. 2 seed Hamilton Continentals on Saturday. Despite having already beaten the Continentals earlier in the season, the NESCAC playoffs are a different beast.
“We were fortunate to come away with a 3-point victory the first time around,” Linton said. “So we got to shift focus here this week and get ready to get it done again on Saturday.”
With the No. 1 seed Williams winning its first-round matchup, the Ephs will play host to this weekend’s NESCAC semi-finals and championship game. Williams plays Colby on Saturday at 2 p.m. before Tufts faces Hamilton at 4:30 p.m. for a chance to play in the following day’s NESCAC championship game.