Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Men’s basketball taste how sweet victory is but now seek even sweeter revenge

Tufts earns two major wins in NYC to advance to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen, prepares for upcoming rematch with NESCAC foe Trinity College.

Wtufts-5.jpg

Casey McLaren and Jay Dieterle are pictured after the March 2 game against New York University.

Men’s basketball traveled to New York University for the opening rounds of the NCAA Division III Tournament and notched two big wins in the Big Apple. The postseason environment did not disappoint. Lead changes, lockdown defense, clutch 3-pointers and nail-biter victories secured the Jumbos a spot in the Sweet Sixteen.

Tufts faced Stockton University on Friday in a matchup of at-large selections, and Tufts’ defense showed off to usher in 2024 playoff basketball. Tufts jumped out to a strong start, scoring nine of the game’s first 11 points, but as the clock ticked down on the opening frame, the momentum shifted to Stockton, who went into halftime with a two-point advantage. They pulled further ahead to begin the second half as the Jumbos took a few moments to get fired up, but the Ospreys made a crucial mistake: letting Tufts junior guard Khai Champion get hot. Champion’s 12 points were topped only by sophomore center Josh Bernstein’s 14. Champion also hit three clutch shots with less than seven minutes remaining and the season on the line to get the Jumbos back in the game. A Champion jump shot with 5:53 remaining brought the score to 53–50, and he followed it up with a deep game tying 3-pointer with only 4:02 left to play. Bernstein had Champion’s back, subsequently scoring a layup and sinking four free throws to put the game away for the Jumbos, who took the 59–55 win.

“That game wasn’t our best basketball offensively,” Champion said. “We did a great job defensively, but offensively it was a little stagnant. That's where I really relish the moment the most, just in a big game where it’s clutch time and a big shot has to be hit. I’m always super excited and wanting to take that shot.”

In just 24 hours of turnaround time, Tufts geared up for its biggest test of the year, facing the No. 8 ranked NYU Violets on their home court, both playing to extend their seasons. The final score sent the Jumbos to the Sweet Sixteen by only three points, earning a gutsy 65–62 victory. Champion once again shined under pressure, leading the scoring with 14 points including four 3-pointers. Tufts opened the second half with an 11-point lead, creating the biggest deficit of the night before NYU went on a 13-2 run over the next four minutes. The Violets took a 61–60 advantage on a 3-pointer from guard Spencer Freedman that would be their final field goal of the season. Who else but Champion responded with a 3-pointer of his own to put the Jumbos back on top, and a monster block by Bernstein kept them there as the seconds dwindled.

“I think just our stick-to-itiveness and our defense carried us through the weekend,” Champion said. “[Senior guard] Casey [McLaren] and [first-year guard] Jon [Medley] and myself did a pretty good job containing Spencer Freedman, who is a great player obviously, and he still had 20 [points], but we played great defense on him. I think that ultimately won us the game, but just solid play on both ends.”

Despite dropping their NESCAC semifinal game on Feb. 24, the Jumbos’ consistent victories and strength of schedule earned them an at-large bid, and unity and close teammate relationships propelled them to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen.

“[Team chemistry] was on display at a maximum for us, it was just a surreal feeling. Being in that game against NYU, everybody was super together, it just felt like we were this one unit like super cohesive,” Champion said.

Tufts is now playing for moments. The NCAA Tournament breeds memories, and the teams that find success are the teams that embrace the gravity of every moment in postseason play. The moment the Jumbos realized they were one of the best 16 Division III teams in the country reminded Champion who and what he plays for.

“When that final buzzer sounded, honestly … I still get giddy,” he said. “All I wanted to do was just hug all my teammates and just tell them how much I love them and how much I trust them and support them and everything, and it was just a great feeling.”

Tufts will travel to Connecticut on Friday for a rematch of the NESCAC semifinal game against the 28–1 Trinity College Bantams, who beat Swarthmore College in their NCAA second-round contest to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. 

“I know that our mentality, for me and as a team, is just payback,” Champion said. “We owe Trinity big time for the two games we had earlier this year, so I know I’m excited for that rematch.”