Fourth-Ranked Panthers Tip Off Season Undefeated

by / men's basketball (0) in Sports /
Senior Captain Peter Lynch '13 combined with Jack Roberts ’14 to score 40 points in Middlebury’s 96-60 win over Southern Vermont Tuesday night. (Campus/Jiayi Zhu)

The fourth-ranked men’s basketball team has opened the season with five wins, including a strong performance in the Rinso Marquette Tournament at Lebanon Valley College. Senior captains Nolan Thompson ’13 and Peter Lynch ’13, who was named NESCAC Player of the Week, lead the team in scoring, averaging 16 and 14.5 points per game, respectively. Thompson, meanwhile was named the Most Valuable Player of the Tip-off Tournament, while sophomore Hunter Merryman ’15 was named to the all-tournament team. Merryman, who hails from San Marino, Calif. is one of the leading candidates for the sixth man role, having shown great scoring touch early in the season, particularly from beyond the arc where he leads the team with eight made threes on just 13 attempts.

“Hunter has had a terrific start to his sophomore season,” said head coach Jeff Brown. “His ability to shoot the three ball and [make] plays going to the basket is a great contribution to this team. I expect he’ll be one of those sixth-man [guys] where he’s going to score a lot of big baskets for us.”

The Panthers opened their season in Annville, Penn., edging Ursinus 78-73 in the opening game of the Rinso Marquette Tournament. Five different players recorded double-digit points for Middlebury with Thompson and Merryman leading the way with 13 points apiece. Guards Joey Kizel ’14 and Jake Wolfin ’13 had 12 and 10 points, respectively and Lynch had 10 of his own.

In the championship game the next day Middlebury pulled away late from hosts Lebanon Valley in a 72-63 win despite being out-rebounded 42-26. Thompson led the way once again with 18 points en route to being named the tournament’s MVP while Wolfin added 17 more, making five of his eight attempts. Merryman stretched the floor for the Panthers, shooting four for six from beyond the three-point arc. Swing-man James Jensen ’14, who had four steals in the opening round, recorded 14 points and a team-high five rebounds. While the offense found its rhythm in the second half, defensively the Panthers failed to contain Dutchmen forward Danny Brooks who wreaked havoc in the post, torching the Panthers down low for 30 points and 13 rebounds. Middlebury did just enough to keep Lebanon Valley at arm’s length before going on a 24-12 run to seal the victory, and the championship, after the Dutchmen closed within three points midway through the second half.

Tuesday, Nov. 20 the team traveled to Poultney, Vt. in their first regular season game, against Green Mountain College. The Eagles gave the Panthers all they could handle in the first half, taking a 33-32 lead late in the half. Middlebury responded, however, going on a 16-8 run to take a 48-41 lead at the break. The Panthers dominated the second half, scoring 69 points after the intermission as Lynch had 13 of his game-high 27 points on six of six shooting in the second half. Albert Nascimento ’14 had 14 points, all of which came in the final 20 minutes, as the junior from Governador Valadares, Brazil finished with four field goals on six attempts and sunk five of six free throws. Wolfin and Merryman each added 14 points as well while Thompson, who has scored in double digits in every game so far this season, had 10. The Panthers shot a scorching 76 percent from the floor in the second half and 65 percent for the game, while out-rebounding Green Mountain 50-27.

Middlebury then traveled to Plattsburgh State in a meeting of unbeaten teams. The visiting Panthers got off to a slow start, scoring just 24 points in the first half and went into the locker room trailing by five — their first half-time deficit of the season. The Cardinals extended their lead to nine early in the second half, dominating the offensive and defensive glass while disrupting the Panthers’ offensive sets with heavy pressure on the perimeter. The visitors whittled their way back, taking a 39-38 lead on a Merryman three-pointer with 13:43 remaining, the team’s first lead since the 12:34 mark in the first half. Following back-and-forth play that saw eight lead changes in just over six minutes, the Panthers took the lead for good on a jumper from Jensen with 6:08 remaining. Lynch and Thompson then combined to score 20 of the team’s next 22 points as Middlebury clung to a tenuous lead that oscillated between two and seven points. The Cardinals went to a full-court press down the stretch defensively while catching fire from beyond the arc, offensively, at one point scoring 12 consecutive points courtesy of the long ball. Thompson iced the game late, however, extending the lead to seven with two free throws with 59 seconds to play, which he followed with a jumper at the 34 second mark to send the lead back to five with 34 seconds remaining. He finished the contest with 23 points and seven rebounds — both game highs — while Lynch added 19 points on six of eight shooting from the floor and seven for eight from the line. Kizel was the only other Panther to register double-digit points with 13, nine of which came in the second half. Wolfin, meanwhile, added seven assists though somewhat offset by his six turnovers. Middlebury once again struggled on the glass — a concerning sign without Ryan Sharry ’12 anchoring the middle of their defense — allowing 11 offensive rebounds to the Cardinals while being outrebounded 28-21 overall.

The Panthers returned to Pepin Gymnasium for their home opener against Southern Vermont (0-4). Middlebury opened the game on a 33-11 run en route to a 54-27 halftime lead. Lynch was nearly unstoppable in the low post once again, converting seven of nine attempts from the floor for 17 first-half points.

“Offensively I’m just trying to find the best shot possible,” Lynch said. “Not necessarily settling for [a shot] when there’s a defender on me, kicking [the ball] out and reposting and trying to get that single coverage when sometimes there’s a shorter guy guarding me.”

Kizel and Merryman each added eight points of their own, as each went two-for-two from beyond the arc. The story of the game, however, was Middlebury center Jack Roberts ’14 who scored a career-high 18 points on sinking nine of 10 shots. Roberts was equally dominant on the defensive end, swatting a game-high four shots.

“His aggressiveness and his ability to catch some of the passes that the guys laid up for him were the key,” Brown said. “Jack missed a portion of last year that interrupted [his] progress, but I see him growing and growing each week in practice and in our games.”

“Jack played great,” Lynch said. “I think the most improved thing with him since last year is that he’s keeping the ball up high instead of bringing it down. He’s 6’9’’ and no one is touching that ball and he just puts it right on the rim.

Merryman joined Lynch and Roberts as the only other Middlebury player to reach double digit points as the California native buried a third three pointer in the second half from well behind the arc, demonstrating the extent of his range. Merryman’s ability to stretch the floor will be a key to the team’s success in conference play when points inside the paint are harder to come by.

The Panthers return to action Sunday, Dec. 2, when they travel to Providence, R.I. where they will square off with Johnson and Wales.