Panther men's basketball win first round of NCAA tournament

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury College men’s basketball team used stingy first-half defense and key late-game plays in Saturday’s first-round NCAA Division III tournament game to hold off visiting Curry, 68-66.

The Panthers will face SUNY-Cortland (24-4) this coming Saturday in the second round. The game will be played in Cortland, the time was not announced before the Independent’s deadline.

Middlebury and Cortland have one common foe this winter, Plattsburgh. Middlebury won at Plattsburgh, 80-73. Cortland lost at Plattsburgh, 80-77, but twice defeated the Cardinals at home, 68-55 and 75-61.

On this past Saturday, the 21-8 Colonels came in averaging 81.5 points, but Curry trailed at the half, 31-19, and needed three three-pointers in the game’s final 1:50 to reach 66 points.

Keying the Panther defense were senior Nolan Thompson and junior James Jensen, who share the job of covering Curry leading scorer Sedale Jones, and junior center Jack Roberts, who blocked five shots and effectively checked Curry big man A. J. Stephens.

Jensen took over on Jones in the first half when Thompson, the NESCAC defensive player of the year, picked up his second foul. Jones (18 points on six-for-15 from the floor) scored four in the half.

“It was certainly a great effort on the defensive end,” Brown said. “Throughout the game we did a pretty effective job on their inside guy, and also on some of the perimeter scorers. And I thought a big key to the game was the job James Jensen did on Sedale Jones.”

Meanwhile in the first half, the Panthers didn’t light it up offensively after two Jake Wolfin hoops and a Thompson drive made it 6-0 after two minutes. But the team’s other senior starter, forward Peter Lynch, established himself inside for eight points, and Jensen, guard Nate Bulluck and forward Hunter Merryman came off the bench for a combined 11 points as the Panthers led at the break by 12.

Stephens (20 points, 13 rebounds) used his bulk — six-foot-five and conservatively listed at 255 pounds — effectively to score eight first-half points.

In the second half, Curry chipped away at the lead. Even when Joey Kizel hit a layup early on to reach 1,000 career points, the Panther offense failed to spark. The Colonels also picked up their defensive intensity, forcing nine of Middlebury’s 14 turnovers after the break.  

Middlebury still led by nine, 37-28, at 14:05, when Wolfin set up a Roberts three-point play with one of his six assists, but an 8-0 Curry run made it 37-36 at 12:42.

Stephens recorded a three-point play inside, Antonio Jones converted a three-point play after a Panther turnover, and Ted Amendola hit two free throws after an offensive board to make it a one-point game.

But the Panthers never trailed: Every time Curry cut the lead to one, the Panthers answered. Kizel (13 points, five assists) had a three-point play, Lynch (17 points, six boards) scored inside, and Jensen (nine points) slashed into the lane.

Two Lynch free throws at 4:39 made it 53-49, and Thompson (13 points) sank a three-pointer at 3:45 to make it 56-50 — that was just the second trey for Middlebury in 16 attempts. Curry scored on its next two possessions, but two Jensen free throws set the lead at four. Finally, with the clock ticking toward 2:00, Wolfin assisted another Thompson three, and it was 61-54.

Threes by Lambros Papalambros and Sedale Jones and a Jones free throw kept Curry close, but Kizel drove for one bucket and hit two free throws at 0:24 to make it 65-61.

Papalambros drove to make it 65-63 at 0:12, and then a Thompson free throw made it 66-63. Antonio Jones missed a three, and Lynch hit two free throws at 0:1.3 to clinch the win. Sedale Jones, finally open, tossed in a 60-footer for the final score.

Lynch said the game was a battle, and he, too, credited the defensive effort, as well as the Panthers’ composure.

“Their bigs were good. Their guards were great off the dribble,” Lynch said. “We just made some big plays at the end.”   

With the knowledge they may have played their last game at Pepin, the team’s seniors were especially happy with the result.

“It feels really good to win one like that,” Lynch said. “It feels great to win at home, a great crowd, everybody’s out here, so you can’t ask for anything better.”

Brown credited his team’s resiliency, which he said could serve them well regardless of where they play next week or beyond.

“They find a way to be really, really competitive,” he said. “It’s just a big belief that we can find a way to get it done.”

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