MIDDLEBURY — Junior guard Joey Kizel made two free throws with 1.8 seconds remaining in Saturday’s game against Ithaca to send the host Middlebury College men’s basketball team into the Elite Eight of the NCAA Division III tournament, 73-72.
No. 7 Middlebury (25-3) will play third-ranked North Central (Ill.) (27-3) in a quarterfinal on Friday at 7:30 p.m. in the Salem (Va.) Civic Center. The winner on Saturday will face either Amherst or Cabrini. Middlebury, Amherst and Williams all advanced to Salem, giving the NESCAC three teams in the final eight.
After Kizel’s clutch free throws this past Saturday, Ithaca’s Travis Warech attempted a desperation heave, but his shot bounced off the backboard, cementing Middle-bury’s return to Salem, where the Panthers played in the Final Four two years ago.
Panther senior guards Nolan Thompson and Jake Wolfin led all scorers with 20 points apiece; each shot six-for-10 from behind the arc. Wolfin did so despite entering the game shooting just 28 percent this season from long range. Middlebury as a team combined to shoot 15 of 24 from three-point range, including seven straight to start the second half.
“(My shot has) been feeling good, but it just wasn’t going in,” said Wolfin. “I got out there and felt confident. It was the biggest game of any of our careers — in front of our home fans and my last home game. I felt like I needed to have a performance that would take us to the next level.”
Ithaca opened the game, and played much of the first half, in a triangle-and-two defense. Despite limiting the offensive looks for Kizel and Thompson early, the defense conceded open shots to Wolfin. After missing his first attempt of the game, Wolfin knocked down his next three shots, including two threes, and he scored seven of his team’s first 13 points.
“We anticipated that they would play triangle-and-two and face-guard (Kizel) and (Thompson) and bait (Wolfin) into taking some perimeter shots,” said Coach Jeff Brown. “He made some really big shots for us and got them out of that defense and into man-to-man.”
The Panthers maintained a narrow lead for much of the first half. But Ithaca ended the half on an 8-4 run as guard Eli Maravich — the nephew of the great “Pistol Pete” — drained one of his team-high five three-pointers before the horn sounded to cut the Middlebury lead to 36-34 at the break.
Kizel led all first-half scorers with 11 points, while Wolfin and Thompson each had eight and junior forward James Jensen scored seven off of the bench. Middlebury shot 59 percent from the floor in the half, but the Bombers kept close by grabbing six offensive boards and turning the ball over just once.
Out of halftime, the Bombers scored on each of their first three possessions to retake the lead. The Panthers responded in dramatic fashion, making seven straight threes after missing their first four shots.
The barrage of threes reached its apex at 11:35, after Thompson sank the third of three treys in 2:35 to spark a 12-2 Middlebury run and extend the Panthers’ lead to a game-high 10.
Ithaca responded by scoring the game’s next eight points, including two Maravich threes, to cut the Middlebury lead back to two. Then, after another Wolfin three followed by two free throws from senior forward Peter Lynch, the Bombers made another mini-run to cut the deficit back to one.
Ithaca completed the comeback minutes later as Maravich (17 points) hit another three to give his team a 68-67 lead, capping off a 21-10 Bomber charge over a span of 9:57 to give the visitors the lead with less than 2:00 remaining.
The advantage was short-lived, however: Lynch recaptured the lead for the Panthers with two free throws on the next possession.
After two misses on the offensive end, the Bombers elected to put Middlebury on the line in the one-and-one rather than allow the Panthers to run the clock below 30 seconds before attempting a shot.
Thompson, Middlebury’s best free throw shooter this season, missed the first free throw off the back rim, and Jensen corralled the high-arching rebound and was fouled. Jensen sank two free throws to make it 71-68.
At 0:19, Maravich hit a layup to make it 71-70. Then the Bombers put Thompson back on the line, and again Thompson missed on the front end of the one-and-one. This time Ithaca rebounded, and Ithaca point guard Sean Rossi found his teammate Frank Mitchell, who drove and finished with six seconds remaining to make it 72-71.
Middlebury chose not to call timeout, and Kizel got the ball.
“I’m (thinking) ‘just go to the basket,’” Kizel said. “I was trying to get a layup, but they did a good job closing me down. They were a little too aggressive, and I got fouled. I was just trying to make a play.”
Brown explained his thinking.
“Our philosophy is to push (the ball) and try to make a play,” Brown said, “and Kizel made a great play, drawing that foul and getting to the free throw (line).”
At 0:01.8, Kizel, an 80 percent free throw shooter, had a chance to tie or win the game.
“I was hoping the first would trickle in, because I knew the second one would go in if I hit the first,” said Kizel.
After the junior made both and Ithaca’s desperate bid at the buzzer went well wide, Kizel’s teammates mobbed him at center court before celebrating with a euphoric student section, part of Saturday’s once-again sold-out Pepin Gymnasium.