The Middlebury men’s basketball team fell 67-55 to North Central (Naperville, Ill.) in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament, Friday, March 22. The 12-point loss marked Middlebury’s largest margin of defeat since the Panthers were ousted from the 2010 tournament by Rhode Island College, 75-59.
“I feel like we ran into a buzz saw of a team,” head coach Jeff Brown said. “They dominated us on the boards, we struggled to finish our shots and it was a real challenge for us to cover them defensively — areas where we’ve been strong all season long.”
Junior guard Joey Kizel ’14 led the team with 16 points, but struggled from the field, converting just five of his 13 field goal attempts as he and his teammates failed to finish good looks inside and open shots from the perimeter. A week after shooting better than 54 percent from beyond the arc in a 73-72 win over Ithaca, the Panthers made just four of 14 three-point attempts.
“We ran them off the three-point line,” North Central head coach Todd Raridon said. “When you look at their stats [some of those guys] shoot 40-something percent from three — that’s something we had to have.”
Middlebury opened the game with easy baskets inside as tri-captain Peter Lynch ’13 and Jack Roberts ’14 combined to score the first 10 points of the game for the Panthers. Twice in the first half Middlebury opened a seven-point lead, as Kizel scored eight of Middlebury’s next 11 points over 4:48 to spark the Panther run. Roberts gave Middlebury a 23-16 lead with 9:08 remaining in first half with his fourth basket in four attempts off a feed from tri-captain Jake Wolfin ’13.
North Central responded with a 24-14 run over the final 8:41 of the first half. Cardinals guard Vince Kmiec provided the catalyst, pouring in 12 points over a 4:24 stretch. The 6’4’’ junior guard gave his team its first lead since the Cardinals scored the first basket of the game, draining a three with 4:39 remaining in the half. The Cardinals never trailed from that point on as Kmiec, who scored 17 points in the first half and 31 points for the game, made key shots to keep the Panthers at arm’s length.
“Kmiec had a tremendous game,” said Brown. “We were so concerned about Raridon and Gamble that maybe we lost some focus defensively.”
With 1:33 remaining in the first half, tri-captain Nolan Thompson ’13 drained a three pointer to tie the game at 36, but back-to-back layups from North Central’s All-American Derek Raridon and big man Landon Gamble gave the Cardinals a 40-37 advantage at half time.
Kizel led Middlebury with 10-first-half points, but it was the Panthers’ inside scoring that kept them in the game as Lynch, Roberts and James Jensen ’14 combined to score 23 of the team’s 37 first-half points.
Consecutive mid-range jumpers from Thompson followed by an acrobatic reverse layup from Wolfin cut the North Central lead to one just over three minutes into the second half. The Cardinals then orchestrated a 16-2 run, opening a 60-45 lead with 11:12 remaining as Kmiec and company knocked down four treys during the run, while the Panthers missed 12 of their next 15 shots from the field.
Kizel engineered a brief 7-2 run for the Panthers beginning at the 6:51 mark, finding a cutting Hunter Merryman ’14 for a layup off the high pick-and-roll and culminating with Kizel contorting his body through traffic for a twisting layup at the 3:53 mark to reduce the deficit to eight.
That was as close as the Panthers would come, however, as the furious rally to tie the game or retake the lead that Panther fans have come to expect never materialized.
“In a lot of our games — especially when we’ve been down eight to 10 points — we’ve been able to put together a three or four basket run to close the gap,” Brown said. “We were reaching and trying to get that but never did because of North Central’s defensive intensity and focus.”
Middlebury made less than 36 percent of its shots in the second half, including two of its nine three-point attempts as a team en route to scoring just 28 second-half points. Kizel led the team with 16 points, while Lynch ad Roberts had 12 and 10, respectively, as the only three Panthers to reach double-digit point totals. A week after Thompson, Wolfin and Kizel combined to shoot 17-31 in the Sweet 16, Middlebury’s backcourt trio converted 11 of their 33 shot attempts. The offensive struggles in the second half were team-wide, however, as the Panthers’ frontcourt of Lynch, Roberts and Jensen totaled just 7 second-half points on two-for-eight shooting.
Middlebury’s loss in the NCAA quarterfinals brought an end to the careers of Thompson, Wolfin and Lynch, who finished as the winningest players in program history, compiling 104 wins and just 14 losses, including a NESCAC championship and a 15-7 postseason record.
“It has been a terrific class,” said Brown. “It has been a dream to coach them. The trio of seniors are really unselfish. I’ve probably never been involved with a team that throws the extra pass as much as this year’s team has on the offensive end.”
Thompson finished his career with the ninth-most points in Middlebury history and will be remembered as one of the best defensive players in school history. Thompson was named the NESCAC Defensive Player of the Year, while collecting first-team All-NESCAC honors.
Wolfin, meanwhile, is Middlebury’s all-time assist leader with 553 assists. Both he and Thompson were four-year starters for the Panthers.
After playing a reserve role for the better part of two seasons, Lynch developed into one of the NESCAC’s best big men and the most efficient scorer in Middlebury history, setting a new program record with a career 60.2 shooting percentage while leading the team this year, averaging 14.9 points per game.
While three senior captains graduate, the team returns Kizel, a two-time first team All-NESCAC selection, and a group of talented players around him for the 2013-14 season.