MIDDLEBURY — In a Tuesday night college men’s basketball game with more twists and turns than Route 125 on the way to Ripton, Amherst made the last in a series of incredible plays and left a packed, roaring Pepin Gymnasium with a 104-101, triple-overtime win over Middlebury.
The win gave the 22-2 Lord Jeffs the NESCAC title with a 10-0 record in league play and home court advantage for the NESCAC postseason, and will at least preserve their No. 2 ranking in NCAA Division III.
The No. 3 Panthers fell to 21-2 and dropped to third in NESCAC behind Williams (21-3, 9-1 in league play). Middlebury will host No. 6 Wesleyan (12-12, 4-6) in the NESCAC postseason tournament on Saturday at either 2 or 3 p.m., according to college officials. The Panthers defeated the Cardinals at home this winter, 78-77, in overtime.
The Jeffs’ winning basket came from guard Aaron Toomey, who was harassed by Panthers Nolan Thompson and Jake Wolfin into five-for-24 shooting from the floor. But after Middlebury forward James Jensen’s free throw tied the score with 6.8 seconds to go, Amherst inbounded to Toomey, and he raced down the right side, pulled up and swished a long three-pointer at 0:2.9.
Middlebury, with no timeouts left, inbounded to Joey Kizel, whose desperation halfcourt shot hit the front rim.
Both teams had multiple chances to win the game before then in a game that left Panther Coach Jeff Brown shaking his head.
“Our games with Amherst College are unbelievable,” Brown said. “Today was just an unbelievable basketball game.”
Tuesday left the Panthers with no reason to think they can’t prevail in a rematch with either Amherst or Williams, which edged them by a point on the road. But Kizel said first Middlebury must take care of business vs. the Cardinals.
“We have a big game on Saturday,” Kizel said. “We’ve got to focus and win that game if we want a chance at Williams and Amherst again.”
If that mission is accomplished, Kizel said the Panthers could then look forward to the all-but-certain rematches with the Ephs and Jeffs that would follow — and the NCAA tournament bid that will follow the NESCAC tournament.
“We’re confident. We know we should have, or at least could have, won this game, and definitely could have beat Williams. We could easily be undefeated,” Kizel said. “There’s still a few more weeks in the season. We’ve just got to keep getting better every day.”
Brown, too, is confident, but said the Panthers have to work on avoiding the stretches like they went through late in the first half, when they scored just four points in more than nine minutes, and on doing a better job on the boards — the Jeffs scored many of their key late points on the offensive glass.
“We feel like we can play with anybody,” Brown said. “But the consistency and the rebounding the basketball are some areas, if we really develop more in the next several weeks, might really help us advance far in the tournaments.”
The Panthers trailed at the half, 43-29, after the Jeffs had outscored them, 25-4, over the first period’s final 9:33. And they still trailed by 10 with 6:53 to go before rallying to take two one-point leads, on a Wolfin three at 1:31 and two Thompson free throws at 0:33.
But Jeffs center Peter Kaasila (29 points, 11 rebounds), who plagued the Panthers late in regulation and in the overtimes, erased those leads with two free throws and with a putback at 0:18. Kizel drew a foul and hit one of two from the line to tie the game at 69-69 at 0:6.7. Toomey had a chance to give Amherst the win, but missed under pressure.
Amherst led in the first overtime, 78-74, with 2:04 to go, scoring four points following offensive rebounds by Kaasila and Allen Williamson (17 points, eight boards). But Wolfin kept the Panthers close with two threes and two drives to the hoop; 10 of his 17 points came in the first OT. His second trey, set up by Thompson, made it 80-79, Amherst, at 0:25.
Amherst’s Willy Workman (30 points, 13 boards) hit a free throw at 0:20 to make it 81-79, and then Panther center Jack Roberts (eight points, six boards, four blocks) tipped in a Panther miss at 0:12 to tie the game at 81-81. Toomey drove for a potential game-winner, but Jensen stuffed him as the horn sounded.
The fifth lead change of the second OT was Thompson’s transition three-pointer, which was set up by Wolfin at 0:26 and made it 88-87. With the Panther fans chanting “defense,” Kaasila’s layup rolled off the rim, triggering a scramble that ended with Kizel calling for time on the floor with the ball. The Panthers inbounded to Hunter Merryman, who sank two free throws to make it 90-87.
Middlebury elected to foul rather than allow the Jeffs to attempt a game-tying three-pointer. Toomey hit one of two at 0:07, and the Jeffs fouled Wolfin at 0:05.5. Wolfin also made one of two, and it was 91-88.
The Panthers chose to foul Workman at 0:01.8. He sank the first. When the official handed him the ball for the second attempt, he immediately threw the ball off the front of the rim, followed, and laid in the tying basket at the buzzer.
“He quick-shot the ball … It was just unfortunate he got a great bounce, and had the opportunity to tie it up,” Brown said. “Our interior guys were battling with their bigs, and he was just quick to the ball and made a great basketball play.”
The Panthers never led in the third overtime, during which Kaasila scored three times, two on putbacks. But they hung close behind a Merryman putback, four Kizel free throws, and a Kizel three at 1:11 that made it 101-100.
The Panthers got one last chance after an offensive rebound by guard Albert Nascimento — who was only in the game because by that point three Panther starters had fouled out, Wolfin, Roberts and senior forward and the season’s leading scorer Peter Lynch (12 points, four rebounds).
“The foul trouble hurt us, in losing our two starting big people against Peter Kaasila,” Brown said.
The Jeffs fouled Jensen, who hit one of two at 0:11. But then Toomey made the last outstanding play of the game, sinking the long three to end the epic, 55-minute battle.
Thompson played all 55 of those minutes and held Toomey to two-for-eight shooting in the first half before switching onto Workman. Workman was six for seven from the floor in the first half, three for seven afterward. Thompson finished with 17 points, eight rebounds and three assists.
Kizel scored a career-high 30, to go with five boards, four assists and three steals, and Merryman had a team-high nine boards. In all, Amherst outrebounded the Panthers, 51-44, and outshot them from the floor, 49.4 percent to 42.7 percent. The Panthers made 13 of 35 three-pointers, a 37.1 percent rate, while the Jeffs hit six of 18.
“We’re fighters. We’re down 14 at halftime. We just kept battling and plugging along. We had a few chances to win it, and unfortunately we didn’t execute at the end,” Kizel said. “But we can compete, and we know we’re right there.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]