This time of year, every team lucky enough to make the NCAA Tournament has the same vision: to win it all. It’s March Madness; the pressure is inevitable.
Throughout the season, the Tufts men’s basketball team has demonstrated its ability to perform in pressure situations against the best teams in the country. Whether playing current No. 2 Saint Joseph (Conn.) to a tight game, only trailing Harvard by 5 at the end of the first half, winning several hard-fought NESCAC regular season games — such as a 21-point victory at No. 7 Williams — or holding strong to get the victory at No. 3 Middlebury in double overtime with a packed opposing crowd, Tufts has proven repeatedly that it can step up on the biggest stages.
This past weekend of the NCAA Tournament would serve as the next opportunity for the squad to do just that. In the end, while Tufts was able to fend off Widener University in a 78–66 victory to advance to the second round, one of the squad’s best performances all year was not enough for them to advance to the Sweet 16 as they lost 77–72 to D3Hoops’ No. 5 Keene State.
In the Widener game on Friday, barring the hot 9–2 opening run for the Pride, the game was a back and forth affair for the entire first half. Perhaps propelled by one of the season’s highlights in an out-of-this-world backward, over-the-shoulder pass from senior guard Theo Henry that first-year center Joshua Bernstein emphatically dunked at the end of the first half, the squad began to pull away in the second half.
In the victory, the Jumbos’ depth was particularly apparent, with the bench putting up 51 of the 78 total points. Henry led the way with 19 points, including his 12 for 12 from behind the line, and he was followed by junior guard Casey McLaren, who had 12 points, all of which were from three. Henry discussed the nature of his strong performance.
“It’s clear the team needed me,” Henry said. “[Widener was] doing things to take away [senior guard] Dylan [Thoerner] and to take away [senior guard Tyler Aronson], and at a certain point, we have a saying, you just [have] to be a dude and step up.”
In Saturday’s matchup against the Keene State Owls, it was the opposite story.
Despite the caliber of their opponent and the size and noise of the opposing crowd, the Jumbos came out firing, slightly controlling the game’s tight first half. By the end of the first half, thanks to a last-second Thoerner 3-pointer, the Jumbos entered the break leading 37–35. The first half also featured a special moment for Aronson as he passed the mark of 1,000 career points.
“I knew how far I was away from 1,000 points, so I definitely wanted to get that during that game. But the more important thing was just doing everything I could to try and get the win for our team,” Aronson said. “They were taking away Dylan [Thoerner], face-guarding him because of his success in previous games, and how much of a threat he always is. So, I knew I had to kind of step up and carry the offense for a little bit in the first half, which I thought I did pretty well.”
This game was especially significant for Aronson as he finally had the opportunity to face off against his brother, Keene State guard Spencer Aronson.
“I’ve been waiting to play against him my whole life,” Tyler Aronson said. “We went to different high schools and we were waiting for that matchup, and ended up in college, both playing at the [Division III] level, and finally getting to play him, especially in the NCAA tournament, was something really special.”
As the second half began, Keene State came out firing and took charge of the game. Although the Jumbos stayed with them for the rest of the game, they were unable to take control back from an Owls offense — led by center Jeff Hunter — that was prolific in the second half.
“They’re a great team. … To beat a team like that requires immense focus and doing things right, and in the first half, we were really on it,” Henry said. “We played a pretty good game overall, but the second half gets down to it, and foul trouble starts hurting us, they hit a couple of shots where we really shouldn’t have helped off of shooters, they really hurt us in the post — defensive struggles like that.”
Despite the Jumbos coming up short, they put everything on the line and it was undoubtedly a game and a season for them to be proud of. For the squad’s seniors, this season marked a formidable exit campaign, registering a 20–8 record, a trip to the NESCAC semifinals and a trip to the NCAA Tournament’s second round.
“After the season, I can really say that I lived my Tufts career with no regrets and [I’m] so glad that I got the opportunity to put on the Jumbos logo every time I stepped out on the floor, especially being from around here,” Aronson said. “It was just a really special time for me. You know, I’ve played a lot of games with that jersey on and I won’t forget any of them.”
Even with the strength of this senior class that will be moving on, the future is bright for the squad.
“I think [the program’s future is] in great hands. Another year of experience for the coaching staff, they’re only going to get better, and our young guys, so many of them are already in the rotation,” Henry said. “I’m confident that they’ll find [the leaders they need to step up], and hopefully can exceed what we’ve done this year and build upon it.”