Three overtimes, 205 combined points and nearly two-and-a-half hours after the opening tip, the third-ranked men’s basketball team finally succumbed to Amherst 104-101 in triple overtime on Tuesday, Feb. 12, Joey Kizel ’14’s 60-foot heave at the buzzer clanging with finality off of the front rim.
With the loss, Middlebury dropped to 21-2 on the season, the only blemishes on an otherwise perfect record coming against Williams and Amherst by a combined four points. Middlebury enters the NESCAC tournament in third place in the conference and will host Wesleyan Friday, Feb. 16 in the tournament quarterfinal.
The Panthers entered Tuesday’s game needing a win to force a three-way tie at the top of the NESCAC. Had they won, seeding of the top three teams — Middlebury, Amherst and Williams — would have been determined by pulling the selected school’s name out of a hat. Instead, Middlebury lost for just the second time this season, finishing 8-2 in NESCAC play, and cementing their third-place position entering the NESCAC tournament.
The game was one for the ages, featuring 16 lead changes — six in the second overtime alone — and nine ties. After falling behind 6-2 in the opening minutes of the game, the Panthers went on a 23-12 run as Kizel and tri-captain Peter Lynch ’13 combined to score the team’s first 10 points of the game and 15 of the first 17.
Trailing 25-18 with 9:33 left in the first half, Amherst flipped the script, finishing the half on a 25-4 run to take a 43-29 lead into the break. Forwards Willy Workman and Allen Williamson combined to score 27 of the Lord Jeffs’ 43 first-half points on 11-15 shooting from the floor.
“That was the key stretch for them, building that halftime lead,” head coach Jeff Brown said. “We had a lot of empty trips on the offensive end and defensively we struggled to stop them during that stretch.”
In the second half the Panthers slowly chipped away at the Amherst lead, reducing the deficit to six with 14:15 left in regulation as tri-captain Nolan Thompson ’13, who played all 55 minutes of the game, made four consecutive shots over a 4:09 stretch, outscoring the Lord Jeffs 10-2 during that time.
“The way [Thompson] competes is an unbelievable gift,” Brown said. “From the bench, it didn’t look like he was any different in the last overtime than he was in the first 20 minutes of the contest. He really has great endurance.”
David Hixon’s team responded with a 9-2 run of its own to extend the lead back to 13 with 11:21 left to play before Middlebury finally made its move.
Middlebury’s triumvirate of guards willed the team back into the game as Kizel, Thompson and Jake Wolfin ’13 — who joined Thompson as one of eighteen 1,000-point scorers in program history in a win over Lyndon State Feb. 5 — combined to score 22 of the team’s final 27 points over the last 11:53 of regulation.
“We’ve fought back from deficits before, so our mindset is always [that] we’re going to fight back and claw to the end,” said Kizel. “We’ve got strong character — we’re not going to let up.”
Kizel sparked the run with a steal and three-point play to cut the Amherst lead to 10 with 10:37 remaining. His play on both ends of the floor was eerily similar to the play he made against Amherst last season in the NESCAC final that propelled another late Panther run to shave a double-digit deficit.
The teams traded baskets with the comeback momentarily stalled at 10. With 6:16 remaining, however, Wolfin knocked down a long three — his first basket of the game — and the floodgates opened. Middlebury ended the game on a 13-4 run as another Wolfin three with 1:31 remaining in regulation gave Middlebury its first lead since the 5:22 mark in the first half.
“[Wolfin] had a slow start offensively and in the second half he hit some big threes and became more aggressive offensively,” Brown said. “When we were in jeopardy with foul trouble with our bigs we had to utilize our guard play to build on a lead or catch up during the overtimes.”
The final 1:31 saw four lead changes as the game seesawed back and forth. Free throws from Peter Kaasila and Thompson gave their respective teams leads. Kaasila then took the lead back, cleaning up the glass after Aaron Toomey missed a running layup with 18 seconds left in regulation to give Amherst a 69-68 lead. Allen Williamson then fouled Kizel going to the basket, sending the NESCAC’s top free-throw shooter from a year ago to the line. Kizel made the first, tying the game, but hit the back iron on the second, giving Amherst one chance at the buzzer to win the game. Toomey’s long three was well wide of the mark, however, sending the game into the first of three overtimes.
Amherst led much of the way in the first extra period, but could not find an answer for Wolfin, who scored Middlebury’s first 10 points in overtime including a desperation three with 27 seconds remaining and the Panthers trailing by four. The Panthers then fouled Williamson, who made one of two free throws. On the other end, Wolfin went careening down the lane, missing a wild layup. Much like the end of regulation, however, an offensive rebound and putback — this time from Jack Roberts ’14 — sent the game into a second overtime as Toomey once again failed to get a good look before time expired.
Perhaps as a result of fatigue, both teams failed to score during the first 1:53 of the second overtime period. Kaasila, who scored a career-high 29 points and nabbed 11 rebounds — eight on the offensive glass — ended the drought making one of two free throws to give the visitors a one-point lead with 3:07 remaining. The lead changed hands five more times over the next 2:57 as Thompson sank a three from the corner off a Wolfin feed with 26 seconds remaining in overtime to give Middlebury a one-point advantage. Following a Kaasila missed layup the Lord Jeffs were forced to foul, sending sophomore Hunter Merryman ’15 to the line. Despite shooting one of eight from the floor to that point, the California-native stepped to the line and knocked down the free throws, giving the Panthers a three-point lead with nine seconds left. Brown elected to foul intentionally, sending the Lord Jeffs to the line rather than allowing a chance to tie the game from beyond the arc. Toomey, who entered the game as the best free throw shooter in Division III basketball missed the crucial first free throw and, despite attempting to miss the second shot intentionally, accidentally sank the second shot, cutting the Middlebury lead back to two, but giving possession back to the Panthers. Wolfin was then fouled on the inbound pass, sending him to the free throw line with five seconds remaining and a chance to ice the game. Wolfin rolled the first shot in, but left the second shot short. Leading by three, Middlebury fouled intentionally again off the miss, this time sending Workman, who also finished with a career-high 30 points in the game, to the line. Workman successfully executed what Toomey failed to do, sinking the first shot before throwing a line drive shot that caught the front of the rim and sat up in the air perfectly for the charging Workman, who executed all phases of the play, laying the ball in as time expired, sending the game into a third overtime in the most improbable fashion.
“[Workman] quick-shot the ball and he was first to the basketball,” Brown said. “It was unfortunate that he got a great bounce and had the opportunity to tie it up. Our interior guys were battling with their bigs. He was quick to the ball and [Amherst] made a great basketball play.”
The Lord Jeffs led for all but 39 seconds in the third and final overtime as Kaasila poured in six more points while grabbing three offensive rebounds, overpowering the Panthers’ smaller defenders after both Lynch and Roberts fouled out. Roberts, the 6’8’’ center played one of the best games of his career before disqualifying, demonstrating his versatility on both ends of the floor, guarding the much smaller, quicker Williamson at times to great effect.
“The foul trouble hurt us and losing our two starting big [men] against Peter Kaasila made it a problem,” said Brown. “He really hurt us in the [final] overtime on the backboards, getting some misses and putting them back in.”
Middlebury refused to concede, however, as Kizel drained a long three-pointer with 1:11 remaining to cut the Amherst lead to one. The Panthers then forced a pair of missed shots from Toomey and Kaasila, giving them a chance to take the lead with less than a minute remaining. After a disastrous possession that culminated in a turnover, Thompson made the umpteenth great defensive play of the game, intercepting the subsequent inbound pass from his centerfield position in the Panthers’ full-court press. Thompson then lofted an entry pass inside to James Jensen ’14 who was fouled in the act of shooting. The junior wingman made one of two free throws, tying the game at 101 and setting the scene for the fateful finish. Toomey, the Lord Jeffs’ preseason all-American, who had made just four of 23 shots to that point, took the inbound pass with 10 seconds left in the game, bee-lined to the three-point line, set his defender up with a cross-over dribble and drained the game-winning trey from the right wing with under five seconds remaining. Kizel’s subsequent desperation heave was on-line, but fell just a foot short, much like the effort of his team.
“We had a few chances to win it and unfortunately we didn’t execute at the end,” Kizel said. “But we can compete and we know we’re right there — just a few less lapses and a little bit more concentration.”
Prior to Tuesday’s loss — the men’s first home regular season loss in more than three years — the Panthers had reeled off five straight wins including conference wins over Bowdoin, Colby and Trinity. The winning streak was bookended by the team’s two lone losses of the season, the first of which came at Williams on Jan 26.
Middlebury jumped out to an early lead in Williamstown, outscoring the Ephs 26-11 over a 9:30 period in the first half to take a 41-32 lead with 2:02 remaining in the first half. Kizel and Lynch led the way for Middlebury, with 11 and 10 points in the first half, respectively, while combining to shoot nine for 11 from the floor. However, Middlebury went cold late in the first half, failing to score over the final two minutes of the period, as a 6-0 Williams-run cut the halftime lead to three. Middlebury’s play in the second half mirrored the first as poor play down the stretch plagued the Panthers. With 4:21 remaining, the visitors led by seven after Thompson sank a deep three. The team failed to score again, and Williams ended the game on a 9-0 run, taking a one-point lead on a layup from a cutting Daniel Wohl with 31 seconds remaining. Middlebury had one final chance to win the game, but a deep three-point attempt from Merryman clanged off the front rim, handing the Panthers their first loss of the season.
Jensen was the player of the game for the visitors, scoring 12 points in the losing effort. The Vallhalla High School alumnus aggressively exploited soft spots in the Ephs zone defense while limiting Williams star center Michael Mayer on the defensive end, pulling down a team-leading six rebounds despite a three-inch, 42-pound differential between the two. Lynch, meanwhile, was unstoppable on the floor, scoring 16 points in just 16 minutes of play, as he was limited by foul troubles and fouled out of the game with 1:13 remaining.
After the disappointing performance in Williamstown, Middlebury returned to the friendly confines of Pepin Gymnasium where they throttled an overmatched Keene State team, avenging last seasons upset at the hands of the Owls. Lynch, Kizel and Wolfin paced the Panthers, scoring 14 points apiece as the Panthers shot a scorching 59 percent from the floor.
Conference wins over Bowdoin, Colby and Trinity over a 10-day span guaranteed that Middlebury could finish no worse than third in the NESCAC, priming the thrilling finish to the regular season against Amherst. The win over Trinity Sunday, Feb. 10, which served as a makeshift senior night after winter storm Nemo created scheduling issues, marked the 100th win in the careers of the three senior captains.
The Panthers will host Wesleyan in the NESCAC quarterfinals Friday, Feb. 16 in a rematch of Middlebury’s 78-77 overtime escape earlier this season.
“We’ve got a big game Saturday,” said Kizel. “We’ve got to focus and win that game. We want a chance at Williams and Amherst again. We know we’re right there.”