After the NESCAC No. 5 Tufts Jumbos took down national No. 3 and NESCAC No. 4 Middlebury Panthers in a very impressive performance that ended in an 89–80 double-overtime victory, the players took a collective sigh of relief. Whether through self-evaluation, Drew Pasteur’s Bracketology, the ‘expert’ takes from anonymous writers on Division III message boards or any number of other sources, the squad felt very confident — rightly so — that this win would earn them an NCAA tournament bid. Yet, a NESCAC title was still on the table for the team. As Tufts entered Saturday’s semifinals matchup against the NESCAC No. 2 Hamilton Continentals, perhaps it was this confidence in having future games that hurt them, leading to a 71–48 loss.
“I think it just came down to Hamilton [being] the more hungry team,” senior captain and guard Theo Henry said. “I think they attacked that game and attacked us with an attitude that we just didn’t bring: Their season was on the line and ours probably wasn’t.”
Tufts opened up the game well, keeping it a tight game for much of the first half. However, as Hamilton went on a 17–5 run with 7:19 to go in the first half, the team went into the second half down 34–21, and Hamilton never looked back. Although the squad made several attempts to cut into the lead in the second half, their efforts proved unsuccessful, only able to cut it to 15 points. The Continentals pushed through to claim the victory handily behind 19 points from guard Hank Morgan and 13 points from guard Teja Singh. Meanwhile, the Jumbos were led by senior guard Tyler Aronson’s 9 points and junior guard Jay Dieterle, who went a spectacular 3–5 from beyond the arc and 3–6 from the field.
On the boards, the team was once again led by first-year forward Scott Gyimesi with seven as well as Henry, who grabbed six rebounds. As a team, the Jumbos shot 27.1% from the field, while the Continentals shot 42.1%, a statistic indicative of the Jumbos’ struggles on the night.
“There’s a lot of stuff defensively that I think we can improve on,” Henry said. “We didn’t shoot the ball that great. [There are] a lot of things we’re gonna need to fix heading into Friday.”
Following Hamilton’s victory, the Continentals went on to defeat the Colby Mules in the NESCAC Championship. They defeated Colby 71–59 to win both the conference title and the automatic NCAA tournament bid it carried. Overall, three NESCAC schools earned at-large bids to the Division III tournament: Middlebury, Williams and Tufts.
The Jumbos will spend the first weekend of tournament play at Keene State College in New Hampshire, where they will take on Widener University in the first round on Friday. If the team wins that game, then they will take on the winner of Baruch and national No. 5 Keene State. Henry discussed the team’s preparation for Friday’s game.
“We’ll have to watch the film and see how Widener plays,” Henry said. “We obviously had a great plan going into Middlebury and didn’t perform the same way against Hamilton. [We have to] get back to [doing] what we do, which is to defend, get out and run, and shoot the ball well.”
If the Jumbos get back to doing those things and performing like the type of team they can be, the sky’s the limit. But, as evidenced by the wide variety in their quality of performance, it is hard to know which team is going to show up every day. Henry commented on the team’s goals as it enters the next phase of the season.
“My goal has always been [to win the] NCAA Championship,” Henry said. “[We’re] definitely looking to make some noise, and … I feel good about our chances against anyone we come across. This is a battle-tested team, we’ve played some of the best in the country, and we held our own or beat them, so I’m feeling good.”
Two weeks ago, as the Jumbos prepared for what was likely a do-or-die matchup against the Panthers, the same questions arose: Would the squad step up? And which team would show up to the court? Even though the squad needed to beat a Middlebury team that it had previously lost to 72–56, it was able to put on arguably its best performance of the season to come away with the victory.
It may be a good thing that the Jumbos will only have do-or-die games for the rest of their season. After all, history tends to repeat itself.