The seventh-ranked men’s basketball team advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament for the fourth consecutive year, escaping with a 68-66 win over Curry College on Saturday March 2. The Panthers’ two-point win marked the third game in the last four that was decided by one possession or overtime.
Middlebury jumped out to a quick 6-0 lead over an out-of-sync Curry, as tri-captain Jake Wolfin ’13 scored all four of his points in the opening 3:03 of play and tri-captain Nolan Thompson ’13 was left all alone for an easy layup. Thompson was then called for two quick fouls, one a moving screen, the other a blocking call on which the NESCAC Defensive Player of the Year appeared to be in perfect defensive position, but was whistled nonetheless. It marked the first time that Thompson has picked up two fouls in the first half of a game this season.
With Thompson on the bench, James Jensen ’14 and Hunter Merryman ’15 provided head coach Jeff Brown with valuable contributions early in the game. After Curry’s 6’5’’, 255-pound forward AJ Stephens cut the Middlebury lead to three, Merryman scored five consecutive points over a 1:32 span, draining a three from the left wing and then cutting to the basket for an easy layup. Stephens, however, kept the visitors in the game, accounting for eight of his team’s first nine points.
The Panthers continued to receive solid bench play as reserve guard Nate Bulluck ’14 scored three straight for Middlebury, sinking one of two free throws before finding himself on the receiving end of a Joey Kizel ’14 pass in transition. The frontcourt then took over for Middlebury as the combination of Peter Lynch ’13, Jack Roberts ’14 and Jensen combined to score the final 11 points of the half for the Panthers.
“We hit a bunch of jump shots early that opened up the inside and allowed us to play inside-outside,” said Lynch. “When I got the ball down low I knew that if I kicked the ball out they were going to hit the shot so it’s a lot harder for the [defense] to play honestly. I think that’s when we’re at our best — when we’re working in and out, and I think we did a very good job of that.”
While Lynch led the team at the half with eight points, the team’s balanced scoring — eight players recorded two or more points in the first half for the Panthers — and defensive effort gave Middlebury a 12-point lead at the half.
Roberts and Jensen, in particular, were stellar on the defensive end, the former blocking three shots and altering numerous others, while the latter held Curry’s leading scorer, Commonwealth Coast College Player of the Year Sedale Jones, to just four points on 1-7 shooting.
“I thought we did a pretty good job on their inside guy as well as on their perimeter scorers,” said Brown. “A big key to the game was the job James Jensen did on Sedale Jones in the first half. James really gave us a lot of energy on the defensive end.”
After holding Curry to just 19 points on 7-27 shooting in the first half, Middlebury looked sluggish to start the second half, as Curry more than doubled its scoring output over the first 8:07 of the second half.
“The biggest thing was that Curry really cranked up the defensive end,” Brown said. “They started to shoot the passing lanes, turned us over, got some easy scores and we really struggled at the start of the second half putting together some offense and they really closed the gap on us,” Brown said.
The outburst began less than a minute-and-a-half into the second half as the Colonels slashed the Panthers’ lead to seven with a 7-2 run. Middlebury’s only basket over that stretch came on a nifty reverse layup by Kizel, who became the third member of the team to reach the 1,000-point mark this season — and the 19th player in program history — after Thompson and Wolfin accomplished the same feat earlier in the year.
Successive layups by Jensen and Roberts extended the team’s lead back to nine, but Curry responded with eight straight points to move within a point of the hosts for the first time since Middlebury’s first-made basket, 26 seconds into the game.
Middlebury never relinquished its lead, staving off multiple attempts by the Colonels as the visitors cut the deficit down to one on five separate occasions but were never able to tie the game, let alone take the lead outright. While only Lynch scored more than five points in the first half, four different Panther players recorded at least six points in the second half as Jensen, Lynch, Thompson and Kizel combined to score the team’s final 31 points of the game.
Kizel led the team with 11 second-half points and continually made plays when the team needed it most, attacking the rim and finishing in the paint or going to the free throw line. With 10:17 remaining, the junior guard from Short Hills, N.J. missed a hanging floater off the backboard, but followed his shot, grabbed the offensive rebound and laid the ball in while getting fouled. The ensuing free throw gave Middlebury a four-point advantage, denying the Colonels an opportunity to take the lead.
“It didn’t seem like we had the energy or the focus that we brought in the first half,” Kizel said. “At [that] point I was trying to do whatever it took to get the team going.”
Stephens, the Colonels’ power forward, kept his team close, however, with a game-high 20 points, 12 of which came in the second half. Using his wide body he backed down the taller Lynch and Roberts, demonstrating great touch in the lane and sinking six of eight shots from the line.
“He’s just a beast,” Lynch said of Stephens. “We were doubling, we were brining help-side defense — we were doing everything. That was a tough matchup.”
Kizel’s playmaking ability, coupled with clutch shooting from Thompson beyond the arc and made free throws down the stretch from the Panthers, proved too much for the Colonels, however.
With Middlebury leading by three with less than four minutes remaining in the game, Roberts plucked a long rebound out of the air following a Kizel miss. The ball made its way back into Kizel’s hands and this time the 6’0’’ guard attacked the lane and, with the defense collapsing around him, found Thompson on the wing for an open three.
“[Thompson]’s just so steady,” said Brown. “He doesn’t get down when he is missing shots, and he sat a big chunk of the first half and came out cold at the start of the second half. But he hit a couple of big shots and gave us that separation we needed.”
Thompson struck again, less than a minute later, as this time Wolfin found him in the corner for a spot-up three, extending the Panthers’ lead to seven. Curry had an answer, however, as guard Lambros Papalambros drained a long three to make it a two-possession game with 1:50 remaining. Following a turnover from Wolfin, Sedale Jones made the first of two free throws to bring Curry within three with 1:22 remaining.
On the second miss, the ball was knocked out to Kizel who found a teammate while being hit from behind. In the confusion, the Panthers held the ball in the backcourt and Kizel, wary of being called for a 10-second violation in the backcourt called timeout.
“Once I had released the ball I was thinking about the shot clock and when I caught the ball with 26 [seconds left on the clock],” said Kizel. “Luckily I saw the shot clock and immediately called the timeout. It turned out to be a pretty big play.”
Coming out of the timeout, the Panthers isolated Kizel who beat his man Papalambros and then cut diagonally through the lane, finishing with his right hand off the window in front of Curry big man John Durkin.
“Once I got into the lane I knew I was going to try to make the play,” Kizel said. “A few minutes before I had kicked the ball to [Thompson] for three so they were more spread out [defensively.] I just saw the lane and took the layup.”
Trailing 63-58 with 1:01 remaining, Curry executed the final minute almost perfectly given their circumstances, taking — and making — the first good shot attempts they had offensively. Jones cut the lead to two, knocking down a long three with Kizel flying at him after Papalambros missed a layup and the long rebound was tipped into his path. Then, after Kizel made a pair of free throws, Papalambros knocked down another jumper halving the deficit to two.
Following a 30-second Curry timeout, Thompson threw a long, baseball pass down the floor to Jensen who alertly avoided being fouled and found the hustling Thompson — the team’s best free-throw shooter, at 82 percent — who was sprinting to the ball. The Akron, Ohio-native was fouled with 11 seconds remaining. Two made free throws would have all but clinched a victory.
Instead, Thompson’s first free throw bounced out before he coolly sank the second. In a scenario eerily similar to Middlebury’s overtime games against Wesleyan and Amherst, the Panthers led by three with seconds remaining.
We [were] prepared to play that situation both ways,” Brown wrote in an email. “A concern that I had at the time was [Curry’s] Stephens getting great position on the foul shot. The time also played into the decision [not to foul].”
The Colonels got a quick shot from three as Antonio Jones got a free look from the right wing. Unlike so many other late-game situations that Middlebury has experienced over the past two seasons, Jones’s shot fell just short, and went through the hands of Stephens out of bounds.
“I thought it was definitely going in just because of all the misfortunes we’ve had in those late game situations,” said Kizel. “But I guess the numbers finally decided to go our way this time.”
The Colonels fouled Lynch who needed to make just one free throw with three seconds left to seal the victory. Lynch made both, providing the Panthers’ with the necessary two-point cushion when Sedale Jones launched a last second shot from half court that banked home.
Lynch led the team with 17 points on 5-10 shooting and Kizel and Thompson each added 13. Jensen, meanwhile, had nine points while playing 25 minutes off the bench as he and Lynch worked in tandem in the post.
“The whole week in practice I just wanted to be more aggressive on the offensive end,” said Jensen. “I was making backdoor cuts, face cuts — I cut on Sedale [Jones] and [Lynch] threw it over the top. We had been doing that all week in practice and hard work pays off.”
The win advanced Middlebury to the second round of the NCAA tournament. The Panthers travel to Cortland State on Saturday, March 9 to play the Red Dragons who have yet to lose on their home floor this season. Middlebury enters the game 11 for its last 48 from beyond the arc, a trend the team will have to correct in order to beat Red Dragons, who shoots 43 percent as a team from distance on their home floor.