Panthers Drop Three Straight to Tip Off New Year

By Joe MacDonald

The men’s basketball team (8-5 overall, 1-1 in NESCAC) went into winter break on a high note with a nail-biting 89-84 victory at Skidmore, but the long layoff did not favor the Panthers, who opened 2014 with three straight losses, including the NESCAC opener on Friday, Jan. 10 against Bates. Middlebury then captured its first NESCAC victory with an impressive defeat of a young and athletic Tufts team 80-66 on Saturday, Jan. 11, and followed-up that performance with a convincing victory over a struggling Lyndon State squad with an 81-69 win on Tuesday, Jan. 14.

Following two sloppy losses against out-of-conference opponents, Middlebury opened NESCAC play at home this past weekend. The Panthers had not lost to Bates since Feb., 2007, but suffered a 64-61 defeat on Friday night. Shots consistently fell for Middlebury in the first half, who took a 36-25 lead at halftime after making six three-pointers and shooting 45 percent from the field.

Prior to the game, Coach Jeff Brown spoke about Dylan Sinnickson ’15, who was poised to return from a personal leave of absence.

“We expect for Dylan to contribute, and in terms of how much, it will really depend on the performance,” Brown said.

Sinnickson rewarded his coach’s decision, exploding off the bench for 17 first-half points on 6-10 shooting, including three of four from beyond the arc.

Despite shooting just 24 percent from the floor in the second half, Middlebury maintained their lead as Bates bailed out the hosts with multiple fouls early in the second half, and 15 personal fouls total after halftime. As a result, the Bobcats (8-4, 1-0) worked tirelessly to cut into the Panthers’ lead. With less than five minutes to play, a missed layup on the Panther end resulted in a dunk for impressive Bates center Malcolm Delpeche to draw the Bobcats within one. On the ensuing Panther possession, another missed layup in traffic gave the ball back to the visitors. The crowd cried for a foul and the volume in Pepin Gymnasium reached a crescendo as the Panthers settled in to protect their one point lead. However, Delpeche made his presence felt again with a follow-up lay-in on the other end to put the Bobcats ahead 54-53.

Trailing by one at the 2:30 mark, captain Joey Kizel ’14 knocked down a free throw to tie the ball game at 56. Kizel, an 82 percent free throw shooter on the season, uncharacteristically missed the second, but the Panthers came out of the crowd underneath the basket with possession and Kizel knocked down a go-ahead three-pointer. On the other end, Adam Philpott retaliated with a three of his own. And then, with 10 seconds remaining, Bates’ leading scorer and co-captain Graham Safford drilled a back-breaking three. The Bates 64-61 victory was sealed when Kizel missed an off-balance three-point attempt of his own as time expired.

Sinnickson finished as the game’s leading scorer with 23 points, and attributed his performance to increased concentration.

“I was very focused heading into this weekend,” he said. “We were struggling prior to Bates and Tufts, but I think we have turned the corner,” Sinnickson said.

Kizel managed 12 of his own, primarily by getting to the line (7-11), and dragged down seven rebounds.

The Panthers played a much more complete game on Sunday against a freshman-laden Tufts (7-6, 0-1) team. With the Jumbos getting two experienced guards back from injury just in time to meet the Panthers, Sunday’s match-up provided a stiffer challenge than Tufts’ record would have suggested. However, Middlebury’s dead-eye shooting throughout made the difference. The Panthers shot at a 51 percent clip from the field, 47 percent from deep and 81 percent from the charity stripe, where Brown’s team has been inconsistent on the year.

The first half featured fast-paced basketball and dominant post-play by Tufts’ first-year big man Hunter Sabety, who was perfect from the field, making all eight of his first-half attempts and adding three boards. Hunter Merryman ’15 led the Panthers in scoring at halftime, knocking down two three-pointers and tallying eight points. As a whole, the Jumbos dominated the first half rebounding battle, played tight perimeter defense and made quick substitutions to keep legs fresh in order to secure a three-point lead going into halftime.

With the game close five minutes into the second half, the physicality picked up when, after the whistle, Sabety slammed the ball through the hoop onto a sprawled Matt Daley ’16. The insult drew a shove from James Jensen ’14, which resulted in a technical for the senior forward and outrage from the Middlebury fans. A minute later, further physical play resulted in a double foul on Jensen and Tufts’ first-year forward Drew Madsen. The rough play meant that both teams were in the double bonus with more than eight minutes remaining, a development that favored Middlebury, as the Jumbos converted only 56 percent of their second half free throws. Both Madsen and Tufts’ junior guard Ben Ferris left the game early due to foul trouble.

The game remained tightly contested until the last two minutes, when a Daley three, followed by an old-fashioned three-point play by Matt St. Amour ’17 pushed the game out of reach as part of a 20-5 Middlebury run over the final 8:54 of the game.

The victory over Tufts halted the team’s first three game losing streak in eight seasons. In Middlebury’s first action of 2014, the Panthers dropped a road game at Salve Regina (9-4) after an eight hour bus ride due to inclement weather and only a 30-minute warm-up. Middlebury followed that by shooting an abysmal 28 percent at home against Plattsburgh St. (8-3) in a 63-47 loss, the team’s lowest scoring performance of the season.

Coach Brown believed that the team’s offense executed well against Plattsburgh, despite displeasing results.

“I think it really just sort of got contagious in that we missed some shots we normally make and we got tighter as the game went on, but in reviewing the game I think our offensive execution was pretty good,” Brown said.

After the two out-of-conference losses, Brown admitted that his team’s resolve had been challenged.

“I think our confidence has been shaken a little bit, not coming out of the gate strong in the second semester,” he said.

On the heels of the conference victory over Tufts, the Panthers traveled to Lyndonville, Vt. to take on in-state opponent Lyndon State.

The Panthers lead throughout, eventually closing out a 81-69 win. Merryman, Sinnickson, St. Amour and Jensen all scored in double digits, while Jack Roberts ‘14 lead the squad with eight rebounds.

Now sitting at 1-1 in conference, the Panthers will resume NESCAC play this coming weekend with road games at Wesleyan and Connecticut College.