The Middlebury men’s basketball team advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament with a 73-72 win over Ithaca College on Saturday, March 16. Junior guard Joey Kizel ’14 made a pair of free throws with 1.8 seconds remaining in the game to give his team the decisive points. On the final play of regulation, Ithaca’s Travis Warech attempted a desperation heave at the buzzer, but his shot bounced harmlessly off the backboard, cementing Middlebury’s return to Salem, Va., where the Panthers played in the Final Four just two years ago.
Nolan Thompson ’13 and Jake Wolfin ’13 led all scorers with 20 points apiece for the Panthers, as the senior guards combined to shoot 12-20 from beyond the arc.
“[My shot has] been feeling good, but it just wasn’t going in,” said Wolfin, who entered the game shooting 28 percent from beyond the arc. “I got out there and felt confident. It was the biggest game of any of our careers in front of our home fans [and] my last home game. I felt like I needed to have a performance that would take us to the next level.”
Middlebury as a team combined to shoot 15 of 24 from three, including a streak of seven straight to start the second half. Kizel, meanwhile, chipped in 13 points of his own as Middlebury’s trio of starting guards combined to score 53 of the team’s 73 points.
“[The threes] were all good looks,” said Kizel. “It’s all about inside-out. We’re moving the ball really well and getting touches in the paint first, either through [Lynch] or [Roberts] or [Jensen] or by dribble penetration.”
Ithaca opened the game, and played much of the first half in a triangle-and-two defense. Despite limiting the offensive looks for Kizel and Thompson early, the defense conceded open shots for Wolfin. After missing his first attempt of the game, Wolfin knocked down his next three shots, including two threes, as the New Jersey native scored seven of his team’s first 13 points.
“We anticipated that they would play triangle and two and face-guard [Kizel] and [Thompson] and bait [Wolfin] into taking some perimeter shots,” said head coach Jeff Brown. “I was a little concerned when he missed the first, but he made some really big shots for us and got them out of that defense and into man-to-man.”
Behind Wolfin’s early contribution, the Panthers maintained a narrow lead for much of the first half, taking a six-point lead — their largest of the half — with 2:29 remaining in the half. Ithaca ended the half on an 8-4 run, however, as guard Eli Maravich — the nephew of the great “Pistol Pete” Maravich — drained one of his team-high five three-pointers just seconds before the first-half horn sounded to cut the Middlebury lead to two at the break.
Kizel led all scorers at the break with 11 points, while Wolfin and Thompson each had eight and junior swingman James Jensen ’14 contributed seven points off of the bench. Collectively, Middlebury shot a scorching 59 percent from the floor in the first half on 13-22 shooting, while holding Ithaca under 38 percent as a team. The Bombers, however, kept the game close by crashing the offensive glass and limiting their turnovers.
Out of the half-time break, Ithaca took advantage of a slow restart from the Panthers, scoring on each of their first three possessions to take the lead for the first time since the 7:02 mark in the first half. Middlebury responded, however, making seven threes in seven attempts after missing its first four shot attempts in the second half.
The barrage of threes reached its apex at the 11:35 mark, as Thompson sank three treys over a 2:35 stretch, catalyzing a 12-2 Middlebury run and extending the Panther lead to 10, the largest of the game.
Trailing by double digits, Ithaca launched a run of its own, scoring the game’s next eight points as Maravich knocked down a pair of threes to cut the Middlebury lead back to two. Then, after another Wolfin three followed by a pair of free throws from tri-captain Peter Lynch ’13 gave Middlebury a 62-55 lead at the 6:29 mark, the Bombers answered with another mini-run of their own, cutting the deficit back to one with less than five minutes remaining in regulation.
The visitors completed the comeback minutes later as Maravich hit yet another three to give his team a 68-67 lead, completing a 21-10 Bombers run over a period of 9:57 to take the lead with less than two minutes in the game.
The Ithaca advantage was short-lived, however, as Lynch recaptured the lead for the Panthers with a pair of free throws.
After a pair of misses on the other end, Ithaca elected to put Middlebury on the line in the one-and-one rather than allow the Panthers to run the clock below 30 seconds and potentially convert on a shot at the end of the shot clock. Thompson, who entered the game as Middlebury’s best free throw shooter on the season missed the front end off the back rim, resulting in a high-arching rebound, which Jensen tipped in the air once, and then corralled before being fouled.
A year ago, in Middlebury’s Sweet 16 loss to Scranton, Jensen made just two of his 10 free throws, a statistic that loomed large in the Panthers’ three-point loss at the buzzer. Saturday, however, Jensen converted three of his four attempts from the line, including both in the final minute, extending Middlebury’s lead back to three.
On the other end, Ithaca put the ball in the hands of Maravich, who drove to the basket and, with 19 seconds remaining, converted a hanging layup to cut the deficit back to one.
Following a timeout, the Bombers put Thompson on the line once again, and again Thompson missed on the front end of the one-and-one. Off the miss, Ithaca point guard Sean Rossi found his teammate Frank Mitchell who blew by Lynch, and finished at the hoop with six seconds remaining, setting the scene for the final sequence.
“I’m [thinking] ‘just go to the basket,’ said Kizel of the final play. “I was trying to get a layup, but they did a good closing me down. They were a little too aggressive, and I got fouled. I was just trying to make a play and get a shot off, and we were able to.”
“Our philosophy is to push [the ball] and try to make a play,” Brown said, “and Joey Kizel made a great play, drawing that foul and getting to the free throw [line].”
Kizel then stepped to the line with a chance to tie or win the game with 1.8 seconds left.
“When I got to the line I was hoping the first would trickle in, because I knew the second one would go in if I hit the first,” said Kizel of his game-tying and game-winning free throws.
The victory Saturday gave Middlebury’s three seniors 104 career wins, the most in team history. Middlebury will play North Central (Ill.) in the Elite Eight on Friday, March 22, at 7:30 p.m. in the Salem Civic Center. The winner will advance to the Final Four and play the winner of the Amherst-Cabrini game.
A version of this article ran in the Addison Independent on March 18.