MIDDLEBURY — When visiting Plattsburgh State knocked off the Middlebury College men’s basketball team on Tuesday, 63-47, the Panthers fell to 6-4 with their second straight loss.
Even granted Middlebury’s tough early-season schedule, that winning record is not up to the program’s recent standards — four games is the most the Panthers have lost in four of the past five seasons, and they have won at least 24 games in each of those years. In the fifth of those seasons the Panthers went 28-2 and reached the NCAA Division III Final Four.
But the Panthers graduated three starters from the team that reached the Elite Eight a year ago, and while Coach Jeff Brown said the team has plenty of returning and new talent, he is still trying to make the pieces fit.
“It’s just really been an interesting year for us. I feel like we still have some moving parts, and (I’m) just … understanding the group as a whole. So we’re more than a third into the season, and I expect some changes in the lineup, and I’m still going to try to tinker with some matchups,” Brown said. “And hopefully there are some things that are fixable.”
Complicating his task has been a series of injuries and absences involving key contributors on the Middlebury roster, leaving Brown still working on his rotation with NESCAC play opening this weekend — the Panthers host Bates on Friday evening and Tufts on Sunday afternoon.
“That’s the biggest thing. We’ve had three or four players that have been out at various times, and just integrating guys back into the playing group has been a little bit of a challenge,” Brown said after watching his team shoot just 28 percent against Plattsburgh. “We’ll sleep on it and sort of change gears and point toward the weekend and league play.”
Senior guard and preseason All-American Joey Kizel sees the same challenges, which on Tuesday included integrating two freshmen — guards Matt St. Amour and Jake Brown — and three sophomores — forwards Matt Daley and Jake Nidenberg and guard Connor Huff — into the rotation.
“Getting the whole roster back healthy for the first time, obviously we knew it was going to be a process. We want it to be a quicker process, but we still have a lot of competition left and we can still do a lot of good things,” Kizel said. “It’s just focus, togetherness, and being a team.”
On Tuesday, the Cardinals (7-2) took a 20-10 lead at 9:10 of the first half as a number of good Panther looks inside rolled off the rim and PSU guard Edward Correa sank four three-pointers; he finished with a game-high 22 and hit six of 10 from behind the arc.
The Panthers responded with an 8-0 run behind four points from Kizel, who led Middlebury with 13; two from Daley, who finished with six on three-for-five shooting off the bench; and two free throws from senior forward James Jenson (eight points, five boards) that made it 20-20 at 7:26.
Middlebury went cold, however, allowing Plattsburgh to close the half with a 9-3 surge and take a 29-23 lead. The Cardinals did most of their damage in a 7-0 run between 7:26 and 5:20 that consisted of two drives by Thomas Xavier and another Correa trey that made it 27-20. In the final 5:20 of the half, all the teams could muster was a combined five free throws.
The Panthers cut the lead to 32-29 at 16:30 of the second when junior forward Hunter Merryman went coast-to-coast with a steal, but Brown called for time when Plattsburgh stretched the lead to 41-31 at 12:39.
Middlebury responded with its best three minutes of the game. Senior guard Nate Bulluck fed senior center Jack Roberts (six points, six rebounds, three blocks) for a layup, Kizel sank a three to cap a possession with strong ball movement, Daley converted a feed from Roberts in the lane, and Bulluck hit a free throw at 9:57 to make it 41-39 and force a PSU timeout.
The Panther surge soon ended. PSU’s Ezra Hodgson hit a three, and after Jensen converted from Kizel on an inbounds play at 8:20, the Panthers went scoreless for nearly six minutes while the Cardinals pulled away. Forward Shavar Fields hit in the lane, and at 7:20 Shamoy McIntosh sank a three to make it 49-41, after which Brown called time.
But nothing worked until Merryman hit a three at 2:40, and by then the Cardinals led, 58-44 — it could have been larger if they had shot better than seven-for-12 from the line in that span.
Brown said the Panthers had a hard time developing any offensive consistency all game, in part because of the Cardinals’ aggressive man-to-man defense, but that his team did not deal well with the pressure down the stretch.
“I just think we were really rushed and panicked,” he said. “And we worked so hard to close the game it was just unfortunate we couldn’t remain focused on the offensive end.”
The Panthers also had trouble in the second half on Jan. 2, when host Salve Regina improved to 7-2 by knocking off the Panthers, 76-69.
Middlebury, arriving late after a long, snowy bus trip, led at the break, 35-32, but the Seahawks went on a 20-4 second-half run to take control in the late going, 65-51. Kizel netted 21 points for the Panthers, followed by Merryman with 19. Jensen pulled down 11 boards.
Brown and Kizel said the Panthers will have to do better in NESCAC play.
“I think we’re really very capable, and we have some experienced guys that have had a lot of success in the past, and we’re kind of sprinkling in some of the new players in our program,” Brown said. “But it’s really about bringing the passion and executing on both sides of the ball.”
Kizel offered a way to improve both play and teamwork.
“We’ve just got to work harder in practice,” he said. “It starts in practice. (We have to) get our focus back. We know we’re a good team. We just have to figure it out.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]