MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury College men’s basketball team’s magical season ended in a Saturday NCAA Division III Sectional Final in a Pepin Gymnasium full of the Panthers’ adoring fans.
Their cheers and chants rattling off Pepin’s wooden rafters weren’t enough, as Williams held off a Panther rally that saw two potentially game-tying shots in the final 10 seconds roll off the rim before the Ephs won, 79-75, to advance to this weekend’s Final Four in Salem, VA.
There, the 23-8 Ephs — undefeated outside of NESCAC play — will take on No. 1 Whitman. Babson and Augustana (Illinois) will meet in the other semi.
The Panthers, who smoked Endicott in Friday’s Sectional semifinal, 89-60, finished a 27-4 season in which they individually and collectively set several records. They had won 14 straight, a streak than had earned them a share of the NESCAC regular season crown, the NESCAC playoff title, and the right to host an NCAA Regional as well as this past weekend’s Sectional.
The Panthers’ winning streak began after a blowout loss at Williams, which they had since avenged with an 84-62 victory over the Ephs in the NESCAC playoff final.
Coach Jeff Brown said his team reached another level after losing at Williams.
“It all started with the first Williams game, when they blew us out, and our guys really took it to heart and really decided to come together, put a little more work in the gym, and we were able to reel off 14 in a row,” Brown said.
And the Panthers gave it their all on Saturday, but simply didn’t shoot well against a gritty defensive effort from the Ephs. They trailed, 77-68, when Eph Kyle Scadlock hit a three with 2:20 to go, but then attacked the basket relentlessly to draw fouls over the next two minutes.
Matt Folger and Jake Brown hit two free throws apiece, and then Jack Daly (a game-high 23 points) hit three of four in the final minute as the Ephs missed the front end of two one-and-ones. Daly’s pair at 0:38.5 made it 77-75, and Middlebury rebounded an Eph miss from the line at 0:21.
But in the final seconds neither Daly nor Folger could hit in heavy traffic in the lane, and Eph Marcus Soto finally grabbed a defensive board, was fouled, and hit the clinching free throws at 0:06.8.
Panther senior leader Matt St. Amour said the Panthers never thought they would lose.
“No one quits, and that’s what made this group so special, one through 14, we’re all in for all 40 minutes,” St. Amour said. “And it’s been amazing to be part of that, to have that much belief and trust. So, yeah, we really thought we had it, right down towards the end.”
Brown also praised the Panthers’ determination.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the way we competed. We were in a little bit of a hole with three minutes to go,” Brown said. “And we found a way to have the possession to possibly tie the game late. And it’s really a testament to Matt and his teammates. They have a gritty, unselfish style, and they really are great competitors. And they’ve taken us on a great ride this year.”
The Panthers took early leads in both halves, 17-9 at 13:15 of the first on a Nick Tarantino layup from St. Amour, and 46-41 four minutes into the second on consecutive hoops inside by Adisa Majors and Eric McCord.
But each time the Ephs clamped down defensively — Middlebury shot just 36.4 percent from the field, and St. Amour was held to 14 points, eight below his average. Williams also got balanced scoring and good three-point shooting. Seven Ephs scored at least seven points, led by Scadlock’s 14, and they hit 13 of 32 three-point attempts, with Bobby Casey sinking four of five.
“They hit some timely threes during that stretch (to take the second-half lead), and they really did a great job of defending, Matt in particular, on the perimeter,” Brown said. “Their length inside makes it very hard for us to finish at the rim.”
Daly tied a career high with 23 points to go along with seven rebounds, four steals and three assists. On Friday, he had broken the program’s single-season assist record, and he finished the season with 183. St. Amour netted 14 points to extend his single-season scoring record to 655.
Brown scored 10, and McCord led Middlebury with nine rebounds as the Panthers earned a 45-37 edge on the boards, and Adisa Majors tacked on eight boards and eight points. The Panthers set a program season record with 1,294 rebounds.
Cole Teal and Casey scored 12 apiece for the Ephs, and Daniel Aronowitz scored 10 and grabbed 12 rebounds.
On Friday the Panthers closed the first half on a 22-8 run and opened the second half with a 23-5 surge in dispatching Endicott, 89-60. That second-half run pushed their lead to 71-29 on the way to avenging a 93-89 December home loss to the 24-7 Gulls.
Middlebury frustrated the perimeter-oriented Gulls with a 3-2 zone and picked them apart offensively. Brown (19 points, eight assists) sparked the offense in the first half.
St. Amour scored 21, including five threes; Tarantino came off of the bench for 11 points and 11 boards; Daly chipped in 11 points and nine rebounds; Folger recorded eight points, nine rebounds and five blocks; and McCord’s 10 boards helped the Panthers earn a 56-39 advantage on the glass.
The Panthers hit 13 three pointers, establishing a new single-season team record with 246; they added five on Saturday.
Keith Brown hit five of nine shots to lead Endicott with 12 points, but as a team the Gulls were held to 33.3 percent shooting.
After Saturday’s game, St. Amour, the Missisquoi Valley Union High School graduate who probably would have been Middlebury’s all-time scoring leader if not for a sophomore season knee injury, said the Panthers would “remember all the good things” about this season.
“It’s a really special group. The 14 of us stayed together to overcome so much, to put ourselves in this position, as coach said, to play in front of our fans, our students and community,” St. Amour said. “I’m just so thankful to be part of this program, to be part of this community. And it’s been an amazing year, and I love all those guys in that locker room. It’s definitely unbelievable. Not the way we wanted it to end, but it’s definitely been an amazing ride and something I will cherish forever.”