MIDDLEBURY — Coming into Saturday’s home game against 5-1 Skidmore, a Middlebury men’s basketball team with four returning starters from groups that earned four NCAA Division III berths carried a 7-0 record and the No. 3 ranking.
But the Panthers lacked a signature win despite their record, and their defense had not risen to the level of past seasons, when they have led the nation in field-goal percentage against.
On Saturday the Panthers picked up that victory, 74-53 against a Thoroughbred team that was riding a five-game winning streak and had only lost in overtime.
And they took a big step toward reestablishing themselves defensively, holding Skidmore to 18 percent from the floor in the second half and 36 percent overall.
Senior tri-captain Jake Wolfin, one of five Panthers in double figures with 12 points, said the Panthers have had to adapt to playing without graduated shot-blockers like Ryan Sharry and Andrew Locke. On Saturday, he said, things began to click into place.
“Coach (Jeff Brown) just told us in the locker room we haven’t been playing good defense at all, and we’ve kind of prided ourselves on playing good defense. We’ve had guys like Ryan Sharry and Andrew Locke who were there to help guys like me when I get beat,” Wolfin said. “This year … we needed to work on our perimeter defense. Tonight we came in real focused.”
As well as adjusting to early successful penetration from Skidmore guards Aldin Medunjanin and Doolan Anyam by playing better help defense, Middlebury also used a new-look 3-2 zone. The Panthers regularly switched back and forth between man-to-man and the zone, and the tactic seemed to prevent Skidmore from getting in rhythm. Wolfin said the zone will become a staple.
“It’s something new that Coach just put in. We’ve been trying it in practice this week … We just wanted to show them different looks and kind of force their shooters to make shots,” he said. “It’s definitely something we’re looking to do in the future.”
Brown agreed Saturday’s game represented significant progress for the Panthers.
“It’s a huge step because we have aspirations of winning championships, and I’m a firm believer you do that by being consistent on the defensive end. And we have been terrific all year on the offensive end, but the defense hasn’t been on the same level as the past several years,” Brown said. “Tonight I really felt like our guys made a statement with the defense, especially in the second half.”
Early on, though, Skidmore did damage offensively, notably Medunjanin (17 points) and sophomore Connor Merrill, the former Vergennes Union High School 1,000-point scorer who is now the Thoroughbreds leading scorer. That duo combined for all of the Skidmore points as their team took an 11-4 lead in the first four minutes. Merrill scored 15 and blocked three shots on Saturday, and leads Skidmore with averages of 18.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 3.1 blocks.
Skidmore led throughout most of the first half, and after back-to-back drives by Anyam and Merrill was up by 26-19 at 4:00.
Then the Panthers, who had been missing decent looks, caught fire. Senior guard Nolan Thompson (15 points) hit a three at 3:30, and Wolfin sank two three throws at 2:16 to make it 26-24. Anyam picked up a loose ball and converted at 1:50, but then junior guard Joey Kizel (15 points, 3 steals) sank threes at 1:40 and 0:40 to give the Panthers the lead for good.
After a Skidmore miss, Kizel then raced down the court and found sophomore forward Hunter Merryman at the top of the key. Merryman (10 points) beat the buzzer with the Panthers’ fourth straight trey. That capped a 14-2 run and made it 33-28, Middlebury at the break.
Wolfin and Peter Lynch (16 points) then combined for all the points as Middlebury opened the second half with a 9-1 run in the first 3:18. Four points from Medunjanin made it 41-33, but that was as close as they came the rest of the way as the Panthers put on the defensive clamps. Junior forward James Jensen and junior guard Nate Bulluck on the perimeter and Jack Roberts inside also played key roles defensively.
It also helped that Middlebury controlled the boards, 39-24. Thompson led the way with 11, Kizel had five, and Lynch and Wolfin each pulled down four.
In a less competitive game on Thursday, the Panthers coasted to a 103-67 win over visiting Johnson State (3-5). Lynch led all scorers with 21 points on 10-for-14 shooting and added a game-high 11 boards. Merryman added 19 points, Kizel scored 12 with seven assists, and Wolfin added 11 points. Dean Brierley scored nine points; Roberts contributed seven points, seven rebounds and three blocks; and Jensen chipped in seven points and five boards.
But Wolfin said Saturday’s game was the one the Panthers had circled on their calendar; he noted Skidmore has also made recent appearances in the NCAA tournament.
“It’s a huge win for us and definitely a confidence-booster going into the break,” he said.
Brown called Saturday’s performance the best of the Panthers’ semester, and pointed out that his senior class has now gone undefeated in pre-holiday games, 28-0 in four years.
Probably more importantly, after Saturday he believes the Panthers have earned their lofty ranking.
“When you see the early-season rankings, you really take them with a grain of salt,” Brown said. “But they’re making me a believer that we’re a top-10 program and that we can play with anybody in the country at this level.”