The third-ranked men’s basketball team improved to 15-0 on the season with a 66-47 win over Hamilton on Jan. 18. Senior captain Nolan Thompson ’13 entered the game just three points shy of 1000 for his career and wasted no time achieving the feat, knocking down his first shot attempt of the game — a corner three set up by an assist from Jake Wolfin ’13 — sparking a 12-0 Middlebury run.
“For Nolan to get 1000 — coming in with me and being one of my best friends for four years — it’s an incredible thing to see,” said Wolfin. “He’s a hard worker and he deserves it.”
Thompson finished the game with 18 points, converting seven of his 10 shot attempts, moving him into 16th-place on the program’s all-time scoring list. The Akron, Ohio native began his Middlebury career four years ago as a walk-on.
“Coach, the first week, said that a kid named Nolan Thompson would be trying out,” said Wolfin. “So we went to meet him and he was doing his crazy work out in the gym and a lot of the older guys were a little suspicious, but they realized right away that [Thompson] is a great leader and obviously has done an amazing job for this program. We were blessed to get him.”
After the Panthers jumped out to a 14-3 lead, Hamilton responded with back-to-back baskets, cutting the Middlebury lead to seven at the 10:55 mark. That was as close as the Continentals would get in the first half, however, as Thompson and Joey Kizel ’14 scored the Panthers next 11 points as the home team engineered a 10-3 run over the next 3:11 to the delight of the Pepin Gymnasium crowd.
“It’s always great playing at home where guys are comfortable in this setting,” said head coach Jeff Brown. “But all three of our starting guards shoot the three-ball very well and they play off each other so well that they get great opportunities.”
“Just starting off with [Kizel] and [Thompson] making three or four shots each in the first couple of minutes, those guys are so talented offensively and they work so hard on their shot in practice it’s clear that those are going to go in,” Wolfin said. “We’re all willing to move the ball and we know when someone’s hot.”
Though the Panthers led 27-13 at the 7:06 mark of the first half, the team made just one field goal down the stretch, missing six of seven attempts from the floor and went into the half up 32-22.
“It’s been something that’s been a little frustrating for us, being down at half[time] and really starting off games slowly,” Brown said. “We got a lot of stops early, we were clicking offensively and that early blast gave us a little bit of cushion.”
After a Thompson three extended Middlebury’s lead to 13 to open the second half, the Continentals went on a 7-0 run of their own including five straight points from forward Peter Kazickas to cut the Panther lead to six. The hosts re-doubled their lead over the next 7:11 as Thompson and sophomore Hunter Merryman ’15 combined to score 12 consecutive points for the Panthers. Merryman provided needed scoring off the bench, as the sharpshooter from San Marino, Calif. contributed 13 points in 17 minutes, including 11 in the second half. Wolfin, meanwhile, assisted or made eight of nine Middlebury baskets over a 7:50 stretch during which the Panthers extended their lead to 19 and sealed their fifth conference win of the season.
“Coming out in the first five minutes is so important for us in the second half and not starting slow,” Wolfin said. “We started fast in the first half for the first time in a while so [I came] out looking to get to the basket a little bit. With a couple of their guards I had a strength advantage going inside and trying to finish, so I tried to put a little pressure on them and then kick the [ball] out to [Merryman] or [Thompson].”
While the Panthers scored 15 points fewer than their season average, the nation’s third-ranked team held Hamilton to just 47 points — the fewest Middlebury has allowed to a NESCAC regular season opponent since the 1999-2000 season.
“When we play defense like that we’re tough to beat,” Wolfin said. “It was a full team effort. Jack [Roberts ’14] was great protecting the rim and [Thompson] did a great job on [Hamilton’s] stud freshman [Matt Hart] — he’s a great player. We paid attention to the scout[ing report] and did a really good job on help [defense].”
The Continentals shot just 35 percent from the floor while turning the ball over 16 times. Roberts created havoc inside, blocking four shots and altering numerous more as Hamilton’s trio of frontcourt starters combined to score just 12 points while shooting four of 19 from the floor.
“[Roberts] has picked up [his defensive play],” said Brown. “That’s really his calling card with this team — to make a contribution guarding the other team’s big player. We don’t give [him] a lot of help, but he’s really long and he’s got good timing and he’s able to change some shots on the interior and block some shots.”
Roberts and the Panthers will have their hands full this week as Middlebury travels to Williamstown, Mass. Saturday, Jan. 26 for a matchup of top-10 teams nationally with considerable NESCAC implications. Roberts will have the task of stopping Williams star, big man Michael Mayer who enters the game fourth in the conference in scoring and second in rebounding.
“For our young student-athletes to have an opportunity to play a ranked team in their gym in our conference in a game that is a battle for sole possession perhaps of first place in our league is really exciting,” Brown said. “I know it’s going to be a packed house and there’s going to be a lot of excitement and enthusiasm and I think our guys will be up for the challenge.”
Middlebury downed Williams twice last season, once in the regular season and again in the NESCAC semifinals.