At the end of December and beginning of January, the men’s basketball team (14–3) seemed a little bit lost, losing three out of five games after starting the season 6–0. But two wins last weekend, a 70–66 defeat of Nescac rival No. 11 Williams on Friday, Jan. 19, in Pepin Gym and an 87–62 win at Pine Manor on Sunday, Jan. 21, extended the No. 10 Panthers’ winning streak to six games and vaulted them to the top spot of the Nescac standings.
The Williams game set-up as monumental rematch of last season’s Nescac championship, which Middlebury won 84–62, and the NCAA Sectional Finals, which Williams won 79–75 at Pepin Gym. The matchup also held important implications for this season’s Nescac standings, since the teams entered the contest tied for second place along with Tufts at 3–1.
Williams built a 21–13 lead early on, but then went cold as Middlebury went on a run to go ahead 25–23 with a little under two minutes left in the half. Tied at 28 on the last possession of the first half, Jack Daly ’18 hit Matt Folger ’20, who sank a three to give the Panthers a lead they would never relinquish.
Ahead 43–38 just over four minutes into the second half, the Panthers started to run away from the Ephs. Their lead grew to as many as 17 points, 66–49, around the seven-minute mark. But then the Ephs fought back and got the deficit to 68–58 with 1:23 left in the second half. Off a missed free throw, Williams’ Bobby Casey hit a three with 53 seconds left, and then Griffin Kornaker ’21 committed an offensive foul to give the Ephs the ball back. Casey hit another three off the ensuing inbounds play, and Middlebury led by just four with 50 seconds remaining.
The Ephs fouled Daly, who missed the front end of a one-and-one. Casey knocked down a two-point jump shot inside the paint to make the score 68–66 with 24 seconds. Williams pressed on the inbounds, trying to deny Middlebury the basketball, but Eric McCord ’19 slipped behind the press and Daly found him for a layup and a 70–66 Middlebury lead.
Williams had two more chances to cut into the lead but missed two threes, and Middlebury held onto a 70–66 victory for a crucial Nescac victory over its heated rival.
“Sometimes when you’re down 10 at the end of a game you have more confidence shooting contested threes like they did,” said team captain Nick Tarantino ’18 after the game. “Coach Brown told us to value the basketball and close out hard on their threes. Williams could have given in but they’re a proud and talented team.”
Hilal Dahleh ’19 and Joey Leighton ’20 stepped up to lead the Panthers in scoring with 16 points apiece, for players who averaged just under nine and six points-per-game entering the contest. It was a career-high for Leighton, who came off the bench to hit seven of his 10 shots from the field in 22 minutes. The pair provided needed production from the wings, Middlebury’s most unproven spot on the court.
“With Jack returning at point and the four bigs also coming back, the biggest question mark for us entering the season was who would fill the minutes on the wing,” said Tarantino. “Hilal and Joey have really grown this year and were vital to beating Williams. We become a dangerous when they catch fire from deep and bring intensity on defense.”
Daly scored seven points and assisted on 11 buckets, while McCord added eight points and five rebounds. Folger scored seven points, grabbed eight rebounds, and blocked four shots.
Defensively, Middlebury held Williams under 36 percent from the field, and the Ephs shot below 40 percent in both halves. The Middlebury bench outscored Williams’ 32–16, and the Panthers controlled the painted area, outscoring the Ephs 40–24 in there.
Tarantino believes the team’s defensive effort against the Ephs was the best it has been all season.
“We communicated very well and really made them work hard to get off open looks,” Tarantino said. “Coach Brown gave us a defensive game plan that we focused on the majority of last week’s practice.”
Brown’s gameplan, coupled with the Panthers’ effort on defense, forced Williams into its worst shooting game of the season.
With the win, along with Hamilton’s 75–49 loss to Amherst and Tufts’ 77–75 defeat at the hands of Bates, Middlebury moved into sole possession of first place in the Nescac at 4–1.
Middlebury was back in action the next day, Sunday, Jan. 21, when it travelled to Pine Manor in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. The Panthers did not waste any time getting ahead against the Gators, as they raced out to a 12–2 lead within the first five minutes. They continued to add to their advantage and led 44–31 at halftime.
The Panthers came out firing on all cylinders once more in the second half, and their lead ballooned to 27 points at the 15:12 mark in the second half. The Gators cut their deficit in half over the next five minutes, but Middlebury came right back to put them away. The Panthers led by as many as 29 points on the way to an 87–62 road victory.
Daly led scored 18 points, corralled 11 rebounds, and handed out seven assists, all game-highs. With 150 assists this season, Daly is well on his way to breaking his own program record for assists in a season, which he set last year when he handed out 183 helpers. He is currently third on Middlebury’s career assist leaderboard, needing only 30 more to break Jake Wolfin ’14’s record of 553.
Folger added 12 points, five rebounds and four assists for the Panthers, while Jack Farrell ’21 tallied 11 points on four of five shooting.
With the two weekend wins, the Panthers extended their winning to six games, tying their six-game streak to start the season. Tarantino thinks the team is putting the pieces together as it gets deeper into Nescac play.
“We’re starting to see the team hit its stride as the younger guys are feeling more comfortable and older guys are filling their roles,” said Tarantino. “We’ve played quality opponents all this month, and sometimes it takes some bumps in the road in order to learn what it takes to beat a very good team. We’re feeling confident now and are looking forward to closing out our Nescac schedule.”
Middlebury has two more away games in the next week, when it travels to Trinity this Sunday, Jan. 28 and Keene St. on Tuesday, Jan. 30. To stay atop the Nescac, the Panthers will have to beat the Bantams, who are in a three-way tie for sixth in the standings at 2–2. However, Trinity has had one of the stingiest defenses in the conference thus far, allowing the fewest points per game as a team overall and the third fewest in Nescac play.