Ephs hold off Middlebury 64-56, capture fourth NESCAC title

Ephs hold off Middlebury 64-56, capture fourth NESCAC title

NCAA Tournament Selection, Monday, 10 AM

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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. - Second-ranked Williams men’s basketball claimed its fourth NESCAC title and its first since 2007 today after the team defeated sixth-ranked defending-champion Middlebury 64-56 in the NESCAC tournament finals this afternoon. The Ephs, led by 19 points from James Wang, never trailed in the game, though Middlebury stood within 4 points with 1:25 to play. The victory, which was the Ephs’ 17th in a row and pushed the team’s record to 26-1, earns the team an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

The Ephs and Panthers entered the game as the top two defensive teams in the NESCAC, allowing 59.9 and 63.2 points per game in the conference, respectively; that defensive prowess was evident on the court, as Williams shot 44 percent from the field and Middlebury shot 34 percent.

Wang, who was the only Eph in double figures, knocked down four free throws with under 30 seconds left in the game to stretch the Eph lead from four to eight points and seal the game. He also finished the game with 2 rebounds and 3 assists.

Nine Ephs scored in the game. Troy Whittington was the second-leading scorer for Williams with 9 points; he also grabbed 5 boards and blocked two shots. Alex Rubin finished the game with 8 points, while co-captain Blake Schultz finished with 6. Co-captain Joe Geoghegan led the way for the Ephs in the paint with 8 points and a season-high 15 rebounds. Harlan Dodson had only 3 points on the game but proved a defensive presence for the Ephs, blocking a team-high 3 shots on the game.

Free-throw shooting hurt Middlebury greatly, as the team went only 7-17 from the line in the game. Tim Edwards, Andrew Locke, Jake Wolfin, and Ryan Sharry all finished in double figures for the Panthers with 11, 11, 11 and 12 points, respectively. Edwards scored all of his points in the first half, and Sharry scored all of his points in the second. Both finished the game with 7 rebounds, and Edwards chipped in 4 assists and 4 steals, both game highs. Edwards broke the all-time Middlebury steals record with his first steal of the game; he now has 193 for his career.

As the game began, it appeared as though Williams might win the title with ease. The Ephs, led by 7 points from Wang, opened up a quick 10-0 lead only 3:21 into the game. Middlebury got on the board with a 3 by Edwards 23 seconds later, and the Panthers soon implemented a press, but they were unable to stop the Ephs; with 6:51 left to play in the half, a Schultz layup gave the Ephs a 30-11 lead. The 19-point margin marked the Ephs’ biggest lead of the game.

Then the Panthers began to claw back, going on a 16-6 run over the next 4 minutes to cut the Eph lead to 10, 36-26, with 2:09 to play in the half. Both teams scored 2 points over the final two minutes, and the Ephs went into halftime with a 38-28 lead. For the half, the Ephs outshot the panthers 48 percent to 30 percent.

“I told my guys coming into the game to enjoy the moment and give everything you have,” said Mike Maker, head coach of Williams. “We attacked from the opening tip. We played to win, with a very aggressive style, and we had a lot of energy, spirit, and togetherness.”

The Eph offense did not dominate in the second 20 minutes the same way it did in the first. The two teams traded baskets for the first five minutes of the half before  Sharry single-handedly cut Williams’ lead to five, 45-40, with a three and a layup with 13:40 to play in the half. The Ephs were able to stretch their lead back to 9, 49-40, with 12:19 to play after a Geoghegan layup, but the Panthers responded, cutting the lead to 49-44 with 10:33 to play on a jumper from forward Jamal Davis.

It again seemed as though the Ephs would run away with the game after the team went on a 10-4 run over the next five minutes, capped by a Wang three that made the score 59-48 with 5:47 to play in the game.

Then Middlebury’s defense stepped up, holding the Ephs without a field goal for the rest of the game. The Panthers came as close as four when a Sharry layup with 1:30 to play made the score 60-56 in favor of Williams. However, the Panthers were unable to score again, and Wang’s free throws, first with 28 seconds remaining, then with 10 seconds remaining, put the game out of reach.

The second half saw the Ephs outshoot the Panthers 44 percent to 39 percent. For the game, Williams outrebounded Middlebury 40-34.

Maker particularly praised the team’s defense on the day. “We get a lot of national recognition for our offense because it has put up big numbers and statistically we have done well,” said Maker. “But we can’t get out and run unless we guard and defend and rebound and we have been able to do that. It enabled use to get out today and get some baskets in transition. If you play half court basketball against Middlebury, they are going to beat you. Our point of emphasis was that we have to rebound the ball, defend the interior, and get out and run and share and score early offense and we did. It enabled us to have enough of a cushion [in the second half] - good teams like Middlebury make runs, and we were able to maintain our lead. They made it interesting in the end, but the result was ultimately favorable.”

Maker was particularly happy for his seniors. “We have seven seniors that are just terrific young men. The chemistry we have on our team means a lot to me, and I am really proud of our entire team, especially the senior class.”

The senior class includes Schultz, Geoghegan, and Rubin, as well as Will Hardy, Ethan Timmins-Schiffman, Mike Mooresetein and Charlie Cates. Hardy and Timmins-Schiffman had 3 and 4 points, respectively, in the game.

“We set winning NESCACs as one of our goals as soon as last season was over,” said Schultz. “Working towards that, thinking about it every day makes it really awesome to accomplish.”

“However, we still have a little ways to go,” Schultz added, referring to NCAAs.

“Winning the title means all that much more because have a large senior class,” said Geoghegan. “It validates all our work the last four years – it’s nice when you have a vision of where you want to be, to actually be there – it’s beyond words”

The Ephs will open NCAAs next weekend; the team will host in the first round, though the opponent and time of the first game remains undetermined until tomorrow, when the NCAA tournament field is announced. You can follow the tournament selection live by following this link or the one above tomorrow at 10.

“None of us in this program have won an NCAA tournament game,” said Schultz. “The tournament is something that we are really looking forward to, and being able to host will be an awesome experience.”