The fourth-ranked men’s basketball team advanced to the NESCAC semifinals for the sixth straight year, downing Wesleyan 61-49 on Saturday, Feb. 16. The Cardinals, featuring a triumvirate of 1,000-point scorers — Shasha Brown, Mike Callaghan and Derick Beresford — managed to shoot just 32.7 percent from the floor, as the Panthers opened the game in a suffocating 3-2 zone and kept the visitors out of rhythm all afternoon long. The loss dropped Wesleyan to 12-13, ending a highly disappointing season for a team ranked in the preseason top 25 poll.
“We did a great job on the defensive end, holding down a very talented Wesleyan team,” head coach Jeff Brown said. “I couldn’t be more pleased with the combination of our zone defense and the man-to-man [defense]. [The combination] was very successful.”
Middlebury opened the game with an early five-point lead as tri-captain Jake Wolfin ’13 found 6’8’’-center Jack Roberts underneath the basket for an easy layup. Both teams struggled from the floor in the first half, however, as the Panthers’ zone stymied the Cardinals, and Wesleyan’s slow pace in turn limited the home team to just 10 made field goals on 24 attempts in the first half. While Middlebury hauled in six offensive rebounds and turned the ball over just four times in the first half, the team led by just three at the intermission, as junior guard Joey Kizel ’14 hit a jumper with 39 seconds left in the first to take a 24-21 lead.
Wesleyan, meanwhile, received very little contribution from its “Big 3” as Beresford, Brown and Callaghan combined to shoot 2-17 in the first half.
“We just tried to pressure them — get right up in their shirts right from the tip,” said tri-captain Nolan Thompson ’13. “We try to do that most time that we play them and it doesn’t always work. It’s better if they miss the first shot and then we don’t let them get into a rhythm offensively.”
Cardinals forward Glenn Thomas, meanwhile, kept his team in the game, nearly recording a double-double in the first half alone, scoring eight points on four-for-four shooting while pulling down nine rebounds. Thomas accounted for five of Wesleyan’s nine offensive rebounds as Joe Reilly’s team crashed the offensive glass in the first half, preying on Middlebury’s inability to box out in the zone defense.
“[Rebounding] has been a big issue all year for us,” said Thompson. “And it’s not just the bigs that need to rebound — we need to come down and help. If our guys are crashing as the guards, we need to go in and help the bigs get a rebound.”
Unable to develop any momentum before the break, the Panthers opened the second half on a 12-4 run, sparked by Wolfin. The New Jersey native converted a three-point play, as Brown, Wesleyan’s diminutive guard, picked up his third foul of the game, less than a minute into the second half. Then, after both teams traded a pair of baskets, Kizel found Wolfin down the floor for an open look from three. Wolfin sank the shot, giving his team a 34-25 lead at the 16:05 mark. Following a 30-second time out taken by coach Brown, Kizel finished the run with a layup in transition off an assist from Wolfin who assisted or scored four of the seven baskets over the stretch.
Callaghan then scored seven of the Cardinals’ next 10 points, cutting the deficit to six with 10:46 left to play. That was as close as the visitors would come, however, as Wolfin and Kizel hit back-to-back threes, ending a 3:33 scoring drought and extending the lead back to double digits after.
“A lot of times we get passive towards the end of the game if we have the lead and hold the ball,” Thompson said. “[In this game] we focused more on still attacking, trying to push the lead, because when we ease off the gas we’re not a good team and we allow them to come back.”
Wolfin and Kizel would provide the dagger shortly thereafter. As the clock ticked inside five minutes, Wolfin drove to his left, spinning a running shot that was part layup, part hook shot off the glass.
Not to be outdone, Kizel clinched the win for the Panthers two minutes later. With his team up 12 and less than three minutes remaining, the junior guard held the ball near half court, allowing the shot clock to reach the 10-second mark before making his move. Kizel took two dribbles and, still three feet behind the arc, drained a straightaway three pointer to give the Panthers their largest lead of the game.
Middlebury made seven of its eight free throws down the stretch for good measure, scoring for the final time with 49 seconds left in the game as tri-captain Peter Lynch ’13 sank a pair from the charity stripe. The 6’6’’ big man finished the game with 12 points and eight rebounds in just 24 minutes due to foul trouble.
Kizel, meanwhile, led the team in scoring for the third straight game, racking up 20 points on just 11 shots, including three-for-five shooting from beyond the arc. Over that stretch the Panthers’ leading scorer in conference is averaging 22 points per game while shooting 49 percent from the floor and 47 percent from beyond the arc.
“He is a game player,” coach Brown said of Kizel. “In the last couple of games he’s come out [with] a concentrated effort to score the ball. When he’s aggressive he’s really hard to check on the defensive end — he can create his shot at any time. When we’re in trouble he’s the guy who makes things happen on the offensive end.”
Tri-captains Thompson and Wolfin rounded out the Panthers in double figures, each chipping in 12 apiece with 11 of Wolfin’s coming in the second half.
Thompson, the heavy favorite to win the NESCAC Defensive Player of the Year award, held Brown — who entered the game as the leading scorer in conference play with 18.9 points per game — scoreless through the first 31:50 of the game before the 5’11’’ Wesleyan guard made a pair of free throws. Brown finished the game with six points and just one field goal on 11 shot attempts. He finished his career as the all-time leading scorer in Wesleyan men’s basketball history.
“[Thompson] is truly unbelievable,” said coach Brown. “There’s not another player in this league that could control Shasha Brown the way Nolan did. He might be a one-in-a-lifetime type of defensive player. His energy and his focus on the defensive end is unmatched.”
Thompson, meanwhile, is also a serious candidate for NESCAC Player of the Year. The Akron, Ohio native has put together a stellar senior campaign, ranking among the NESCAC’s best offensive players in addition to being the premier defensive player in the conference. In 10 league games, Thompson averaged 14 points per game and five rebounds while shooting 54 percent from the floor, 52 percent from beyond the arc and 91 percent from the line, all the while limiting the top scorers in the conference.
“We have a very talented team, but I would say he’s the most valuable player given how strong he is on the defensive end and the things he can do offensively to contribute to this team,” said Brown, endorsing Thompson for the award.
Thompson and the Panthers travel this weekend to Amherst for a NESCAC semifinal matchup with Williams, Saturday, Feb. 23. The teams last met Jan. 26 in a one-point Ephs win in Williamstown, Mass. The winner will advance to the NESCAC finals to play the winner of Tufts and Amherst. Middlebury’s senior class has played in each of the past three NESCAC finals, winning the 2011 title.