WILLIAMSTOWN, MA – Second-seeded Middlebury College defeated the top-seeded Williams College Ephs today in the NESCAC championship game. In a rematch of last year's championship matchup – which the Ephs won – the Panthers went up early and never looked back as they defeated the Ephs 63-54. This is the Panthers' second NESCAC crown; their only other win came in 2009 over Amherst.
The Panthers defeated the Lord Jeffs in an exciting game yesterday to advance to today's finals. Said Coach Jeff Brown about the difference that made, "First of all, I think we brought a ton of emotion. After beating Amherst in a very exciting game and coming back and being down 18 and being 14 down at halftime, our guys were really sky high because most times you can't battle back from that far against a quality opponent but we found the resolve and the intensity on the defensive end to make that happen yesterday, so our guys were really loose and comfortable and energetic [and ready] to play for the championship of the NESCAC today."
Today's game was a rematch of the January 29th game, which the Ephs won at home 69-64 – the Panthers' only loss of the season. Middlebury played that game without leading scorer Ryan Sharry. Said Sharry about getting a look at Williams today, "I was definitely very excited today to get a shot at Williams. Missing that game was tough during the season, but the team played great, and I was just happy to be able to be out there today."
Said Coach Mike Maker about how the Ephs approached the game with Sharry, "I think Ryan's one of the dominant post players in our league, but we really look at a team defense. Our defense has been really good all year long. The thing that is alarming coming in to try to guard them is their ability to get second shots. They're so big; we went big a large portion of the first half, and I thought we matched them really well. We had different substitution patterns today and odd combinations but I think that will serve us well in NCAA tournament."
Today's loss ends the Ephs' 34-game home win streak. The loss was only the second of the season for the Ephs, who moved to 25-2. The Panthers find themselves at 25-1 on the year.
The Panthers jumped out to an early lead over the Ephs. At the 12:36 mark, Nolan Thompson hit a 3-pointer from the right side and on the following possession had a long two from the top to put the Panther lead to eighth. Joey Kizel added a long two of his own just over a minute later to push the lead to double digits.
The Ephs responded with poise as James Wang knocked down a 3-ball from well beyond the arc with 8:40 to play in the game. On the following offensive possession, Brian Emerson hit a long two to cut the Panther lead to five. A few possessions later, Wang swooshed another long ball from the top of the key behind a screen from Troy Whittington to give the Ephs their first lead of the game at 22-20 with just under five to play.
After first-year Michael Mayer scored off of a beautiful drive to the hoop, the Panthers reminded everyone of their defensive toughness when Ryan Wholey and Jamal Davis both came up with huge blocks on the same possession with just over three to play. Thompson then came up huge again on the offensive end when he swooshed yet another long 3-pointer to regain the Panther lead with 3:03 to play. Thompson, who averaged 9.6 points per game entering the weekend, had 15 points in the game – all of which came in the opening half.
The half ended with more offensive power from the Panthers. Jake Wolfin took the ball the length of the court and finished without the use of the board to push the lead back to five. After the Ephs bounced back, Kizel swooshed a 3-ball from the top left to give the Panthers the 32-27 entering the locker rooms.
Coming out of the break, the Panthers quickly added to their lead, but James Klemm hit a 3-pointer with nothing but net two minutes in to cut the Panther lead back to four. Just over a minute-and-a-half later, Harlan Dodson hit one from beyond the arc off of an offensive rebound by Whittington. Klemm then added his third 3-ball of the game with 14:37 to play to keep the lead at four.
Just under two minutes later, Sharry backed down in the paint and finished to push the lead back to four after the Ephs finally cut it down to two. Hoping to give some momentum back to his Ephs, Whittington responded with a one-handed hoop before Kizel took the ball the length of the court for an easy bucket. When Hayden Rooke-Ley drove to the hoop with 9:24 to play to make the score 46-44, Kizel responded yet again with a hoop of his own. After Sharry had a nice put back off of a rebound to push the Panthers' lead to eight, the Ephs were forced to take their third timeout of the game.
Said James Klemm about the Ephs' inability to break the two to four-point lead, "It's definitely frustrating, but obviously we have to give a lot of credit to them. They're the number one defensive field goal percentage team in the nation; we were getting the shots; they just weren't falling."
Out of the timeout, James Wang dribbled by his defenders down the baseline and finished, and it looked like the Ephs might take off. Ryan Locke, however, had other ideas as he dunked a pass from Wolfin with 7:43 to play to gain back the momentum. Wolfin then showed he could do more than pass as he swooshed a 3-pointer with a defender flying at him with seven to play and gave the Panthers the nine-point lead. Said Wolfin about the shot, "It was an open shot, and I just had to knock it down for the team."
The Ephs, however, continued to fight. At 5:10, Wang hit a pull-up jumper from the left elbow. After Taylor Epley made both of a one-and-one opportunity, Whittington came out of nowhere to dunk a rebound with 3:31 left in the game. After being fouled while shooting two minutes later, he converted both free throws to cut the Panther lead to three.
The Panthers relied on their defense once again as they forced two consecutive Eph turnovers before the Ephs could take control. Although they did not have a field goal in the final 4:37, they were perfect from the line: Wolfin went 4-for-4 and Kizel 2-for-2 from the charity spot in the final minute. With the Ephs unable to convert any last minute opportunities, the Panthers walked off the court NESCAC champions.
Said Coach Maker following the game, "Congratulations to Middlebury. For them to come in here and not only win today in a hard fought contest but what they did yesterday being down 18, we have a lot for respect for them. A very talented roster and what Coach Brown has done at Middlebury is phenomenal, so congratulations to them."
Coach Maker did add, though, that he thought his team played well also, "We outrebounded a team that [rebounding]'s what they're known for. We outrebounded them by 6; we had more offensive rebound than [they did]. I guarantee coming in here no one thought our team would do that. We did everything right today. I thought we played very exceptionally well but do not shoot the ball well. Now some of that credit goes to Middlebury, but I take those shots all day long. We held them to 40%; I thought that was excellent. I think we won most of the statistical categories. I don't like the turnover category for us. I thought we had a few too many. Now once again credit goes to their defense. I thought we had the shots we needed; they didn't go in, we take those every time."
Leading the way for the Panthers was Thompson's 15. Sharry added another 14 for Middlebury, who shot 40.4% from the field.
Whittington netted 13 for the Ephs, who were without point guard Nate Robertson due to an injury, and Wang added 12. The Ephs shot just 31.5% from the field.
Said Coach Maker about play without his point guard, "We didn't lose because Nate didn't play. They didn't have Sharry when we beat them here. You play with who you have. We have a lot of depth but did it change our rotations and our defense? Yeah, of course it did. It's not the reason we loss. That would be discrediting Middlebury's accomplishment."
Both teams look ahead to the NCAA tournament; play begins this week.
Said junior Emerson looking ahead, "We're definitely going to learn from this; we're going to take all the things we learned from this - good and bad – and try to move on and be ready for next week. We're excited that this doesn't end our season and we have another opportunity."
Coach Maker commented looking ahead as well: "I'm very disappointed [about the loss] because we live in the moment. Winning the NESCAC title was important to our senior captains and our entire team. [I'm disappointed] but not discouraged, and there's a big difference between the two. I'm optimistic. I wouldn't trade my team for anyone's; I think we're set to make a deep-run in the tournament."