Men’s Basketball Tumbles in Nescacs, Awaits Selection Monday

By ANDREW RIGAS

Behind 50–44 with 9:55 remaining on their home court, No. 14 Wesleyan outscored No. 18 Middlebury 29–15 the rest of the way to defeat the Panthers 73–65 in the Nescac Quarterfinals last Saturday, Feb. 17. The fourth-seeded Cardinals (20–5) defeated the fifth-seeded Panthers (19–6) for the second time this season to move on to the Nescac semifinals, while Middlebury will wait until Monday, Feb. 26, to see if it receives an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Entering this year, Middlebury had defeated Wesleyan 15 games in a row, dating back to the 2004-05 season, but the Cardinals snapped that streak with their 80–70 win on Jan. 6.

Wesleyan’s rise in the Nescac hierarchy has corresponded with the arrival of Joe Reilly as head coach, who has brought Wesleyan from a 1–8 conference record the year before he became coach to a 7–3 record and a tie for first-place in the Nescac this year. Reilly has also guided the Cardinals to the NCAA tournament two of the last three seasons.

Middlebury jumped out to a 4–0 lead in the first half of Saturday’s game, but never led by more than six points in the first half. Wesleyan tied the score on four different occasions in a low-scoring first half. The Panthers turned Wesleyan’s 11 first half turnovers into nine points to take a 32–28 lead into halftime. The Cardinals hung around by hitting six of their 13 three-point attempts, including Antone Walker coming off the bench to drain all three of his shots from beyond the arc.

Out of the locker room, Wesleyan converted an old-fashioned three-point play and made another from beyond the arc in the first minute of action to take a two-point lead, their first of the game. Seven minutes later, behind by one point, Middlebury, driven by seven points from Griffin Kornaker ’21, went on a 9–2 run to retake the lead, 50–44.

Once more, Wesleyan responded, tying the game at 50 before going on what would prove to be the game’s decisive run. From Kornaker’s layup at the 9:55 mark to put Middlebury ahead 50–44, until another Kornaker bucket with 2:08 remaining, the Panthers made only one field goal in six attempts, from Jack Daly ’18 and turned the ball over four times. Wesleyan outscored Middlebury 20–7 in that crucial stretch of almost eight minutes.

As Daly noted, Wesleyan “was able to keep us off the offensive glass down the stretch. That’s been one of our biggest strengths this year and they did a great job of limiting our shot opportunities each possession.”

Entering the game, Middlebury averaged 15.67 offensive rebounds per game, almost two more than any other team in the conference. On Saturday, Middlebury grabbed 12, most of which were team offensive rebounds off blocked shots, and zero as Wesleyan took the lead in this eight-minute stretch. Wesleyan blocked 11 shots as a team, including eight by Jordan Sears.

Kornaker’s basket at the 2:08 mark brought Middlebury within five, 64–59, but Wesleyan made enough free throws in the last two minutes to secure a 73–65 victory and a spot in the Nescac Semifinals.

65 points is Middlebury’s lowest scoring mark this season, for a team that averaged 81 points per game entering the playoff game on Saturday.

A lot of credit goes to Wesleyan, who has had one of the stingiest defenses in the Nescac this season, ranked first in opponent field goal percentage and second in scoring defense.

“Wesleyan is one of the best defensive teams in the country, so we knew it was going to be a battle,” Daly said. “Offensively, we had great movement on the perimeter, but not much attacking and dishing the ball in the last 10 minutes.”

Daly led the Panthers in defeat with 20 points, including 14 in the second half, and six assists. Matt Folger ’20 added 17 points, six rebounds and four steals, and Kornaker scored nine off the bench.

Wesleyan will play top-seeded Amherst this Saturday, Feb. 26, in the semifinals. In the other semifinal game, second-seeded Williams matches up with third-seeded Hamilton.

The Panthers will hold their breath until Monday, Feb. 19, when the NCAA DIII Committee makes its selections for the 64-team tournament field. 43 conference champions receive automatic bids into the tournament, leaving 21 spots for at-large teams. Middlebury is no. 18 in this week’s D3hoops.com national poll. In the final poll before last season’s selections, 13 of the 21 teams to receive at-large bids were not ranked. The Panthers should be in a good position to receive a bid, but no one knows for sure until the committee releases its decisions on Monday, Feb. 26.

The Panthers were as high as No. 5 in the country before three consecutive losses that knocked them out of the first-seed in the Nescac playoffs and then the playoffs themselves. But those losses were on the road to No.13 Hamilton, Amherst, and Wesleyan, three of the teams who tied for first in the Nescac, along with Middlebury and Williams.

“Right now it’s all about keeping a positive mindset, practicing hard every day, and watching as much film as we can to learn from our mistakes,” said Daly. “It’s all about remaining focused over the next couple of weeks. As Coach has been saying all year, we just need to stay the course despite the bumps in the road.”

The Panthers had a stretch like this one earlier in the season, when they lost to three out of five games to No. 12 York, No. 11 Swarthmore and Wesleyan. That time, they responded by rattling off 12-straight victories, including a win over Nescac rival, No. 8 Wesleyan.

If Middlebury is chosen for one of the 21 at-large bids, they will play in the NCAA tournament for the ninth time in 11 seasons. However, unlike last season when the Panthers hosted all four of its tournament games, they will likely be on the road in every game they play. 16 teams host the first two rounds of the 64-team tournament, and as the 18th-ranked team eliminated from the Nescac playoffs early, Middlebury is most likely on the outside looking in at that conversation. Head Coach Jeff Brown is not unfamiliar to playing on the road in the NCAA tournament though. In Middlebury’s first and only trip to the Final Four in the 2010-2011 season, the Panthers received a bye in the first round and won its second game at home, before going on the road to win their next two games to advance to the national semifinals.

At the beginning of the season, the Panthers set their sights on returning to Salem, Maine, to play in the Final Four. Despite this recent losing streak, that goal is still within reach, provided history holds.

Seniors Daly, who has already left his mark on the Middlebury record books, Nick Tarantino ’18 and Adisa Majors ’18 certainly are not prepared to let the season and their careers end. They and the Panthers have won a lot this year, and lost some close games to tough teams. Still, it seems like the final chapter on the 2017-2018 Middlebury men’s            basketball team has not been written yet.

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Men’s Basketball Tumbles in Nescacs, Awaits Selection Monday