In the heat of the moment, or even in a quiet one in the cozy confines of Cousens Gymnasium, Tufts basketball coach Bob Sheldon will talk to his players about playing hard. Enjoy the moment, he’ll say. And as a point of emphasis — with Tom Palleschi, one of his captains, within earshot — Sheldon will deliver the kicker.
You never know when your last play will come. You don’t know if this is your last game.
The team’s leading scorer, sophomore Vincent Pace, released the first shot in last Friday’s NCAA Division 3 first-round matchup against Southern Vermont. A minute later, his breakout season was over because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
His resilient teammates pushed on, though, and a 78-76 win extended what has already been a very special season.
The following night, Tufts rode the rock-solid play of Palleschi’s fellow captains, Steve Haladyna and Ryan Spadaford, to an 88-80 win over Skidmore, clinching the program’s first Sweet 16 appearance in a decade.
On Friday night, the 22-6 Jumbos welcome Johnson & Wales (28-2) to Cousens for a third-round matchup. In the first game of an all-New England weekend bracket in which the survivor will net a trip to the national semifinals in Salem, Va., Babson (23-5) tangles with Amherst (24-5) at 5.
No one has appreciated this more than the 22-year-old Palleschi, a center from Haverhill via Phillips Andover.
At 19, he was the NESCAC Rookie of the Year after a forceful first season in the post.
The following October, a week before the season, he was told his basketball career was over.
Five months earlier, his father had undergone emergency heart surgery to repair a dissected aorta. As a precaution, Palleschi went for tests, which were inconclusive.
He continued to work out all summer in preparation for his sophomore year. Another scan in the fall, however, revealed an enlarged aorta. Wearing a monitor, Palleschi had to keep his heart rate under 140. He was shut down. No athletics.
Basketball is his passion, but the game was not the issue. Quality of life was. His mother was persistent, pushing for more tests. The diagnosis: The aorta was abnormally shaped, and the valve was normal, opening the door for a corrective procedure, aortic root replacement.
On Feb. 13, 2014, Palleschi had open-heart surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital. Prior to the eight-hour procedure, he consulted with former Celtic forward Jeff Green, who had successfully undergone the same surgery two years earlier.
“We talked for 30 minutes at practice,” recalled Palleschi. “It was amazing to get his perspective. It put my mind at ease.”
When he woke up, he felt even better upon learning that his valve was healthy, and had not been replaced with a mechanical device. That would have resulted in Palleschi going on blood thinners, and an end to basketball.
He told Sheldon and his Jumbo teammates the news on their hospital visit two days later.
“Surgery was all about quality of life,” said Palleschi. “Basketball was just a bonus.”
He still faced a long, arduous road, but he was determined to get back.
Four and a half months later, he was on the court, limited to shooting. By September, he was battling his teammates under the boards in captains’ practices. On Nov. 15, 2014, he was in the starting lineup for the season opener at Johnson & Wales, producing 15 points, 10 rebounds, and 2 blocked shots in 26 minutes. His proud parents were in the stands.
“It was good getting that first game out of the way — the most nervous I’ve ever been for a game,” he recalled. “But I wasn’t happy — we lost by 22.”
His teammates echoed his sentiments: “Congratulations, you’re back, but that stunk.”
Making all 25 starts in a 13-12 season, Palleschi earned second-team all-NESCAC honors.
“A remarkable story, just crazy,” said Sheldon . “He is living large, and because of what happened, he seizes the moment. He thought he was done forever.”
This season, at full strength, Palleschi has been the team’s backbone, averaging 14.8 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. He protects the rim — his 106 blocked shots are the second-highest total in Division 3 — for a tight-group that has learned to trust each other on defense and is averaging 85.9 points per game, with five double-figure scorers.
“He’s just an unbelievable competitor, a great story, and he makes them better,” said Babson coach Steve Brennan.
Palleschi prefers to keep the focus on the Jumbos’ galvanizing run this season, not on his individual journey.
“Our main goal was to make the NCAA tourney, and to have us host this weekend, it is awesome, because we have put so much into this,” he said. “This team has great chemistry . . . from the first guy to the last guy on the bench.”
And Friday night, they’ll continue their postseason quest, taking on a foe that Palleschi remembers all too well from his return to the court 16 months ago.
“Funny, how it all comes full circle,” he said. “We now get to play Johnson & Wales in the Sweet 16.”