Men’s Hoops Tops Lord Jeffs in Season Finale

For the first time since 2006, the men’s basketball team failed to qualify for the NESCAC tournament. The team finished 4-6 in conference and lost a tiebreaker to Colby. (Campus/O'Hara)

For the first time since 2006, the men’s basketball team failed to qualify for the NESCAC tournament. The team finished 4-6 in conference and lost a tiebreaker to Colby. (Campus/O'Hara)

By Andrew Rigas

The Middlebury men’s basketball team finished its season this weekend by splitting its two home games and failing to qualify for the NESCAC championships. On Friday, Feb. 13, the Panthers fell to Trinity 90-85 before defeating Amherst 82-69 on Sunday, Feb. 15.

Entering the weekend, the Panthers stood at 3-5 in the NESCAC, good for an eighth-place (the final spot in the playoff bracket) tie with Wesleyan — although Middlebury held the tiebreaker thanks to the Panthers’ 97-60 dismantling of the Cardinals earlier this year.

After getting significantly outplayed by Trinity in the first half and much of the second half on its home court, the Panthers frenziedly rallied to come within four points (conceivably a one-possession game), before eventually suffering a heartbreaking loss that would ultimately eliminate the Panthers from postseason play.

Middlebury took an early 8-4 lead, but Trinity quickly grabbed the driver’s wheel with several first half spurts to take a 39-24 advantage at the halfway point. The Bantams had their way on the offensive end, making more than half of their shots, including several dunks and a 6-9 mark from beyond the arc, while the Panthers crawled to a lowly 31 percent mark from the field.

Trinity came out with that same high level of play to begin the second half, scoring the first seven points of the half to build its largest lead of the game, 46-24, at the 17:52 mark. Over the next 13 minutes, Middlebury slowly chipped away, but the Bantams still held a significant 74-59 advantage with 4:30 remaining.

Matt St. Amour ’17 took over momentarily and scored 10 of his team’s next 11 points as the Panthers pulled within 10 with just over two minutes left. Hoping to extend the game, the Panthers started fouling if they failed to force a turnover quickly with their frantic defense, and a combination of Trinity turnovers and missed free throws gave the Panthers the opportunity to shrink the lead to only four, 87-83, on a Dylan Sinnickson ’15 tip-in with 26 seconds left.

The Panthers could not get any closer as Trinity’s Jaquann Starks knocked down one of two free throws, and Sinnickson missed a three to give the Bantams a 90-85 win.

Trinity played impressive defense on the Panthers all night, only allowing Middlebury to shoot 23-62 (37.1 percent) from the field and 7-22 (31.8 percent) from deep.

St. Amour scored all of his game-high 20 points in the second half, converting all eight of his foul shots and leading the Middlebury comeback. Hunter Merryman ’15 added 16 points, while Matt Daley ’16 tallied 13 points and 11 rebounds for his third double-double in the last six games. Jake Brown ’17 scored 11 points while assisting on seven other baskets and committing only one turnover.

After Wesleyan won on Friday and Saturday, the Panthers were mathematically eliminated, meaning the Amherst game on Sunday had no impact on the Panthers’ chances of making the postseason. However, intrigue remained as the result would be the difference for Amherst between the second and fifth seeds in the tournament and for Middlebury it was Senior Day for five Panthers (Sinnickson, Merryman, captain Dean Brierley ’15, Chris Churchill ’15 and Eamon Cuddy ’15), and they went out on a good note, defeating Amherst 82-69 and snapping the Lord Jeffs’ six-game winning streak.

Starting the four seniors who had never before beaten Amherst, the amped-up Panthers jumped out to an early 13-8 lead as all four seniors found the bottom of the net. The Lord Jeffs answered with a 7-0 run to take the lead, but that would last for all of eight seconds before the Panthers exploded to outscore them 20-7 over the next 5:30 and build a 33-22 lead. When the first half ended, Middlebury held a 41-34 lead behind a balanced offensive effort — all 10 Panthers who saw action scored.

For much of the second half, neither team made much headway in either direction as the Panthers still held a 67-61 lead with just under six minutes left in the game. That changed as the Panthers went on a decisive 9-0 run over the next three minutes to put the game out of reach. When the buzzer sounded on the game and the Panthers’ season, the scoreboard showed 82-69 in favor of Middlebury.

Merryman led the Panthers in scoring with 24, while St. Amour and Daley chipped in 18 and 14 respectively off the bench.

Sinnickson, a two-year starter and inarguably Middlebury’s most valuable player this year, reflected emotionally on his final season in the blue and white and his playing career as a whole.

“It’s great to end on a win,” Sinnickson said. “It was a bright spot in a tough season. It’s tough to leave Pepin Gymnasium. So many great memories. Thanks to all the fans and good luck to my teammates next season and the future of Middlebury basketball.”

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