By David Tanklefsky (@DavidTanklefsy)
BABSON PARK – For the second time in three years, No. 3 Babson College is ‘Elite Eight’ bound.
The Beavers, led by four-time NEWMAC Player of the Year Joey Flannery (38 points), finished the game on a 42-29 run to beat No. 14 Tufts University 87-80 en route to Saturday’ sectional finals against Keene State.
Keene State, which secured a date with the Beavers, rallied to defeat No. 2 Christopher Newport prior to Babson-Tufts. The win avenged a ‘sweet 16’ setback from a year ago.
Said Tufts coach Bob Sheldon of Flannery, “We clamped down (on him) and held him to 38 this time. We game planned for him.”
Flannery and fellow senior Isaiah Nelsen combined for 60 points as Babson shot just under 48 percent from the floor.
The Beavers got out to an early lead, going up 17-4 in the opening minutes. They connected on eight of their first 12 shots and Nelsen poured in a quick 10 points in the first five minutes.
“They wanted to take away Joey and Nicky [Comenale] and that opened up the floor for me,” said Nelsen.
Babson shot just under 53 percent from the field in the first half despite missing 11 shots from beyond the three-point line. They did, however, convert 19 of their 25 two point attempts, while Flannery and Nelsen combined for 34 of Babson’s 40 first half points.
Tufts weathered the early deficit, going on a 37-23 run to end the opening half. The Jumbos secured a 41-40 lead at the break, thanks to a buzzer-beating three-pointer from Ethan Feldman off a loose ball.
The Jumbos commenced the second half by pushing ahead, 51-45 – it would be their largest lead of the contest – as Ben Engvall buried a trey to provide the visitors with a six-point advantage.
Babson would respond, cutting the deficit in half (51-48) with a Charlie Rice trey before Nelsen evened the score at 51-51 with a layup and free throw. Comenale then helped the hosts push ahead – they would never trail again – with a three-pointer with 14:51 remaining.
Tufts did keep pace with Babson, pulling within four-points (60-56) midway through the second half when Tarik Smith sank one of two free throws, but again, the Beavers responded, as Flannery sank a pair of freebies that jumpstarted an 11-2 run.
Flannery concluded the contest by establishing a Babson NCAA Tournament record with 38 points – he connected on 11 of 20 field goal attempts, while stuffing the stat sheet with eight rebounds and two assists. Nelsen, who finished with 22 points, converted 10 of 16 attempts – he netted 14 of his 22 points in the opening half.
The Jumbos outscored Babson, 36-2, off the bench, with Eric Savage leading the attack with 20 points on 7-14 shooting.Yet, it was the Beavers’ core group that rose to the occasion when it counted.
“For this group, I just pray that the seniors go as far as they can,” said Babson men’s basketball coach Stephen Brennan.“For their energy, their kindness (and) most of all their effort.”
Babson is now one win away from returning to the semifinals next weekend and their coach is certainly looking forward to competing for an opportunity to return to the ‘Final Four.’
Said Brennan, “Glad to be there tomorrow.”