WILLIAMSTOWN, MA – The Williams College men's basketball team cut down the nets this evening after they beat Amherst 77-71 for a trip to the Final Four. With the two teams splitting the regular season series at one apiece, tonight's game promised to be good. Led by their 24 points from behind the arc and 21 more from the charity spot, though, the Ephs persevered multiple Amherst comebacks to win.
The Ephs and Lord Jeffs both started the game off from behind the arc. At the 16:30 mark, Harlan Dodson nailed a 3-pointer from the right corner for the Ephs, but Conor Meehan responded on the next Lord Jeff possession with a long ball from the top-of-the-key. On the following Eph possession, James Klemm added one of his own from the top left off of an Eph offensive rebound. A few possessions later, David Waller capitalized for Amherst with a 3-ball from the top-of-the-key as well.
With the two teams trading baskets, the Ephs started to pull away at the 10:42 mark when Nate Robertson hit a pull-up jumper. Behind two free throws from James Wang, they pushed their lead to seven. At the 7:45 mark, Troy Whittington backed down his defender and dished the ball to Robertson at the top-of-the-key who knocked down the long ball to push the Eph lead to double digits. A few Amherst possessions later, Whittington stole the ball for the Ephs. On the resulting offensive possession, he was fouled on his way up; he made the layup and the resulting free throw at the 6:26 mark to push the Eph lead to 12.
Just under a minute later, Meehan had a three-point play of his own for the Jeffs after being fouled on a layup to cut the lead to 11. At the 4:24 mark, Allen Williamson took a charge for Amherst and made a layup on the resulting offensive possession to cut the lead to single digits. With 3:29 to play, Taylor Barrise swooshed a 3-ball from the top left to cut the Eph lead to 30-24 and force the Ephs to take their first timeout. With the Ephs unable to convert out of the timeout, Aaron Toomey pulled up in transition and nailed a 3-pointer from well beyond the arc to cut the lead again.
The Ephs ended the half with the momentum though. Robertson responded for the Ephs by driving baseline for two. With his defender sealed off by Whittington, Klemm swooshed a 3-pointer from the top right with 1:10 to play. With 33.0 on the clock, Taylor Epley drove to the hoop for two to push the Eph lead to 39-34 entering the locker rooms.
The Ephs were led by Robertson's 13 points in the first half. Meehan nearly matched Robertson with 12 for the Jeffs.
Out of the break, the two teams traded baskets. Amherst came roaring back, though, when Waller hit a long three from the top left to cut the Eph lead to one with 13:50 left in the game. Just under a minute later, he dished the ball down low to Jeff Holmes, who finished to give the Jeffs their first lead since they were up 5-4 early. At the 12:30 mark, Meehan swooshed a 3-ball to push the lead to four. Williams would not allow the Jeffs to capitalize, though, and responded with poise.
Said Robertson about the Jeff lead after the game, "Coach said in a timeout, 'If I told you you would be down by one with ten minutes left at home against Amherst with the chance to go to the Final Four at the beginning of the year, would you have taken it?' And we said of course. From there we just went after it and got the job done."
With 11:37 to play, Wang drove to the hoop and finished without using the backboard to cut the lead to two. After Waller scored for Amherst, Robertson scored his first bucket of the half off of a pull-up jumper. With 10:20 to play, Klemm swooshed a three from the top-of-the-key behind a screen from Whittington to give the Ephs back their lead at 55-54. On the following possession, Klemm showed he was all business when he was fouled while shooting another long ball from the top. Undaunted, he hit the three and the resulting free throw to push the Eph lead to five.
A few possessions later, Peter Kaasila responded for Amherst with a layup; he was fouled on the play and made the resulting free throw to cut the lead to six. With 5:11 to play, Barrise back-doored and finished a pretty layup for the Jeffs. Kaasila then hit a hook shot and a put back off a rebound with 3:25 to play to cut the lead to two.
With the score close in the final minutes, Whittington responded for the Ephs with a beautiful dunk that got Eph fans screaming and gave Williams a four-point lead. The field goal was the first for the Ephs in just under eight-and-a-half minutes – a span during which they added 12 points from the free throw line including five from Wang and another four from Robertson. With 24.0 on the clock, Robertson hit a 3-ball from the top right with the shot clock winding down to push the Eph lead to seven. With Amherst unable to rally, Eph fans stormed the court as the clock wound down and the Ephs found themselves in the Final Four for the sixth time and second straight.
Said Robertson about Whittington's dunk after the game, "When you see Troy open, you have to give him the ball because he's an electric player. His dunks fire everybody up on defense and getthe crowd going, so it was a no brainer to give him the ball."
Said Coach Mike Maker, "Three biggest plays of the game—put the ball in the hands of Nate; he drove, got fouled and made two free throws. Then he assisted Troy on the dunk, and then he made a dagger of a three late. It's a phenomenal accomplishment to beat a team that talented, and we feel blessed to go to Salem for the second year in a row."
Meehan led the way for Amherst with 17 while Waller and Kaasila each added 16 for the Jeffs, who shot 39.7% from the field.
Said Meehan after the game, "My teammates and I had no doubt we were going to make the run down the stretch, but they had some guys make some big plays down the stretch. They're a good team and we're a good team; we just didn't play well enough tonight."
Added Coach David Hixon about his star senior, "Conor has been the corner stone of what we've done here. We had a tough time without him last year. A lot of these guys have grown up, but he's the guy for us and we're sad to see him go."
Waller complimented his teammate after the game as well: "Conor is huge for us. He's the rock of our team. He's the leader. This is particularly hard for us because we know he deserves better than this, and we just couldn't pull it out for him."
Klemm commented on the key for the Ephs after the game: "I had a great experience last year and had the pleasure of learning from one of the most talented players to come through this school in Blake (Schultz '10) and being able to watch them out there, I learned a lot from them. [Amherst] made a few runs, and that was nerve-wracking, but overall we trust each other and I think that's what it came down to: being able to defend and rebound as a team [and] take smart shots. It gave everybody confidence."
Added Robertson about what this win meant to him, "I couldn't imagine a better start. I feel so blessed to be a part of this program. It's something I've been able to completely buy into. I've seen things like this happen before, but to be able to be a part of it is an incredible experience."
Coach Maker was all praise after the game, "We have great chemistry, a lot of mental toughness, and our guys just want to win, and they sacrifice their stats to do that. This is the first time that Nate's been in a press conference. I've been trying to tell everyone how good he is; he just makes everybody better. Klemm made five threes. Nate's IQ is off the charts and when he's healthy, we're pretty good and I think we proved that today. I think we're the only one that remains that went to Salem twice. Harry did it, Dave did it, and my players did it. I love them, and I'm really proud of [our] effort."
The Ephs will face Wooster at 6:00 on Friday night in Salem. The two teams also faced off in the semi-finals of the 2003 NCAA tournament, in which the Ephs went on to win their only national championship.
GAME NOTES: Williams leads the all-time series with Amherst 117-88.
Amherst won the first regular season contest in Amherst 92-89 in OT. Williams won the re-match at home 74-70.
The Ephs are 4-0 vs. Amherst in NCAA play defeating the Lord Jeffs in 1997, in the Elite Eight in 2003 and the National Semifinals in 2004 as well as tonight.
Ephs Mike Maker is now 5-3 vs. Amherst and the Lord Jeffs' Dave Hixon is 36-43 vs. the Ephs.
Friday night, Amherst's Connor Meehan needed 20 points to become the Lord Jeffs' 24th player to reach 1,000, and he netted exactly 20.
The Ephs' James Wang, a junior, went over 1,000 points in January becoming the 29th Eph. Wang is only the second Eph to tally 500 or more points in consecutive seasons 554 last year and 560 this year. Michael Nogelo '98 went over 500 three years in a row and owns the Eph single season mark of 634 and is the all-time Eph leader with 2,002.
Williams has now advanced to six Final Fours and Amherst has played in four.
Troy Whittington posted his 12th double-double of the year last night with 28 points and 11 rebounds.