The third-ranked Panthers have opened NESCAC play with four straight wins, improving to 14-0 on the season. Three of those wins, however, came by three points or fewer, including a pair of one-point wins over Tufts and Wesleyan — the latter coming in a 79-78 overtime victory on Saturday, Jan. 12. In all three contests, Middlebury’s opponents have missed opportunities to tie or win the game at the buzzer, preserving Middlebury’s undefeated record.
Middlebury opened NESCAC play with a Friday night game in Lewistown, Maine against Bates followed by a game in Medford, Mass. less than 20 hours later.
In a physical matchup with Bates, the Panthers limited the Bobcats to just 41 percent shooting from the floor, but were outrebounded 42-24, and 14-3 on the offensive glass, by the Bobcats, the shortest team in the conference.
“I don’t care who we play — we can’t [get outrebounded] by 18,” said senior captain Peter Lynch ’13. “[Rebounding] was a huge emphasis in practice this week. We’re doing everything right, but we’re not being aggressive enough to go get it. We’re trying to box out, but we weren’t being tough enough.”
The following day at Tufts Middlebury quickly found itself in a 7-0 hole as the Jumbos jumped on the visitors early. Trailing 52-39, the Panthers finally made their run, outscoring Tufts 24-9 over the next 8:18 to take a 63-61 lead with 4:39 remaining in the game.
Leading 70-69 with 24 seconds remaining, Jake Wolfin ’13 attempted a full court pass to James Jensen ’14 behind the Jumbos’ press in the corner of the court. Unable to haul in Wolfin’s pass, Jensen turned the ball over, giving Tufts one final chance to win the game. The Panthers’ swingman rectified his mistake, however, rejecting Kwame Firempong’s game-winning layup attempt as time expired.
Middlebury returned home a week later, hosting Connecticut College and Wesleyan in a pair of matchups featuring two of the NESCAC’s top scorers: the Camels’ Matt Vadas, the conference’s top scorer, and Wesleyan’s Shasha Brown, a first-team All-NESCAC selection a season ago.
In Friday’s game against Conn. College, Middlebury found itself trailing early, as the Camels scored 12 of the game’s first 16 points. Nolan Thompson ’13 kept the Panthers in the game on both ends of the floor, as he connected on each of his first six shots of the game, accounting for 10 of the team’s first 12 points and 15 of the first 19. Defensively he limited Vadas, also the leader in field goal attempts per game, to just four points on two shots in the first half.
Despite Thompson’s near-perfect performance on both ends, Middlebury trailed by two at the half as the Camels shot better than 50 percent from the floor and Thompson’s teammates shot an icy 8-26 over the first 20 minutes of the game.
After a poor first half, Middlebury erupted out of the break, scoring the first 10 points of the second half, and 13 of 15 as Joey Kizel ’14 scored eight of his team-high 17 second-half points in the first 5:17 of the period. After the Camels cut the lead to four with 13:14 remaining, Panthers methodically extended the lead, culminating in a convincing 85-68 win as the Panthers totaled 51 second half points on 61 percent shooting.
The seminal moment of the game came with 6:44 to play. Needing just six assists to break Ben Rudin ’09’s all-time assist mark, Wolfin found Kizel on the wing for a wide-open three, extending the lead to nine and giving Wolfin his sixth assist of the game 461st dime of his career, a new program record.
“The assist record means a lot to me,” said Wolfin. “Middlebury has an amazing basketball tradition and to be in the record books for assists is really cool. More importantly, this record is a testament to my teammates who have finished for me over the past four years. The play that it happened on was typical of our team. Everyone touched the ball and we all passed up on good shots to get a great shot.”
Thompson, the NESCAC Player of the Week, played the first 38 minutes of the game, adding seven rebounds, three assists and a block while holding Vadas to seven points on two of six shooting.
“On the court you see it — he’s nonstop — he doesn’t get tired,” assistant coach Scott Picard said of Thompson. “You ask him to play full court defense for 40 minutes, and he does it.”
Thompson may see even more minutes going forward, as reserve guards Nate Bulluck ’14 and Dean Brierley ’15 both sustained injuries that will keep them out multiple weeks. The injuries are particularly costly given the absence of Dylan Sinnickson ’15, a breakout player as a first-year last season, who has yet to play this season after breaking his forearm in the preseason.
“It’s just crazy [how] that stuff will happen,” said Lynch. “Three hustle plays and [three injuries]. So now it’s up to other guys — and it’s a good thing we’re so deep. It’s giving other guys other opportunities.”
With the top two reserve guards unavailable, junior Albert Nascimento ’14 saw extended minutes off the bench, and rose to the occasion, draining a three in each half and playing strong on-ball defense during his 10 minutes on the floor.
Despite Nascimento’s contribution, Middlebury trailed again early against Wesleyan, falling behind by nine midway through the first half before closing the gap as the half closed. The Panthers opened the game in a 3-2 zone, challenging Wesleyan, which entered the game shooting just 32 percent from three as a team, to beat them with the long ball.
Middlebury took its first lead of the game on a Jensen three-point play with two minutes left in the half. Five straight points from Wesleyan’s Derick Beresford, including a three to beat the shot clock, gave the Cardinals the lead again with less than 10 seconds remaining in the half, setting the scene for the final dramatic play of the half. Catching the inbound pass with seconds remaining, Wolfin released the basketball a couple feet behind the half court circle, sinking the desperation heave to give Middlebury a one-point advantage at the half.
“[In] the first half of the Wesleyan [game] my shot felt a little bit off,” he said. “For some reason that half court shot felt good. There was definitely some luck involved but it gave me confidence going into the second half. I felt much more comfortable on the first few shots of the second half and got into a rhythm.”
Wolfin hit his first three shots after the break providing the catalyst for a 16-4 Middlebury run early in the period, which gave the Panthers a 46-35 lead at the 13:37 mark. Wolfin and Kizel accounted for 14 of the 16 points in the run, and 21 second half points overall as Kizel led the Panthers with 13 second half points.
The Panthers took their largest lead of the game with 5:55 remaining and seemingly had the game in hand. However, over the final 5:09 of regulation, Brown scored 12 points on four field goal attempts as he and senior center Mike Callaghan combined to score Wesleyan’s final 21 points of regulation and 27 of the team’s final 29, including 24 straight.
Trailing by two after a pair of free throws from Brown with eight seconds left, Wesleyan fouled Wolfin on the ensuing inbound pass, sending him to the line to shoot two free throws. The Middlebury guard — a 76 percent free throw shooter on the season — made the front end, giving the Panthers a three-point lead, but left the second shot short with a chance to ice the game. The rebound fell to Brown, who was immediately fouled with 3.2 seconds remaining, denying him the opportunity to launch a game-tying three at the buzzer. Instead, Brown went to the line, needing to make the first free throw before intentionally missing the second in order to give his team a chance to tie the game with an offensive rebound and put back before the buzzer.
After the Wesleyan guard converted the first shot, Middlebury head coach Jeff Brown called timeout to set up his defense for the final play.
“During the huddle, coach [Brown] said, ‘I don’t want to get beat on the three so let’s make them execute something perfectly’ and it happened to be [executed] perfectly,” assistant coach Scott Picard said.
“Instead of having two players on the line I elected to have two off the line because [Wesleyan] had [Mike] Callaghan and Beresford at the top [of the key] and I really didn’t want to see them get possession of the ball and back out for a three that would win the game,” said Brown.
With nobody to box him out to his right, the Wesleyan guard alertly threw the ball on a line at the rim, just to the right of the center, bouncing the ball directly back to himself and away from Thompson who was attempting to box him out from the other side. Wesleyan’s Brown collected the ball, took a dribble to his right and floated a shot off the glass and in at the buzzer to send the game into overtime.
“Shasha Brown nailed that free throw perfectly and he’s such a freak athlete, just so quick to the ball, that he got it back and had an unbelievably easy shot,” coach Brown said. “But we did have another five minutes to play, and to our credit, our guys just kept battling and the character and heart of our group is really, really special. [For] a lot of teams losing a 12-point lead and then getting behind in overtime there would be some quit, but not with our guys.”
After trading scores, Middlebury had the ball up one with 56 seconds remaining in overtime. The Panthers struggled to find a good look and failed to extend their lead, allowing Wesleyan to hold for the final shot of the game and a chance to upset undefeated Middlebury at home.
Coming out of a timeout, Brown tried to use a ball screen to get around the corner and into the lane for the final shot of the game. Instead, Hunter Merryman ’15 hedged the screen, blocking Brown’s lane to the basket and forcing the electric guard to take an off-balance three-pointer at the buzzer, which bounced off the backboard and front rim, giving Middlebury the one-point victory.
“Until the horn went off I wasn’t sure what was going to happen,” coach Brown said. “Sha [Brown] got back up and threw up a prayer and from where I was sitting, I [thought] it might go in.”
The win improved the Panthers to 13-0, and 4-0 in NESCAC play.
Tuesday, Jan. 15, the Panthers traveled to Castleton State to play their in-state rivals. Hoping to slow down the NESCAC’s top-rated offense coming into the game, the Spartans slowed the pace of play, killing as much clock as possible and limiting Middlebury to just 54 points on 48 field goals. While Castleton State limited the Middlebury’s shot attempts, the hosts failed to slow Lynch who scored 23 points on 11 of 12 shooting, dominating the paint against a much smaller Spartan team. No other Panther player reached double digits, but Kizel finished with a strong all-around performance, scoring eight points while grabbing four rebounds and dishing out five assists. Middlebury opened up an early lead in the game and received another boost from a buzzer beater to end the half — this time off the hand of Thompson. Out of the break the Panthers scored eight of the first 10 points of the second half and outscored the Spartans 30-19 in the second period en route to improving to 14-0.