MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury College basketball team controlled most of Sunday’s game with nationally ranked NESCAC rival Bowdoin, but needed some good fortune to avoid overtime and nip the visiting Polar Bears, 69-66.
With 2.2 seconds to go, Bowdoin senior and former Springfield High School standout Grant White hit a three from the left corner to tie the game at 66-66.
But someone from Bowdoin called for time, unaware that the Polar Bears had already used their final timeout. The resulting technical foul sent Panther senior Joey Kizel to the line, and he hit one of two free throws to make it 67-66.
The Panthers went back to the other end and inbounded to Kizel, and Bowdoin fouled him with 0:1.3, and he sank two free throws to create the final score — Bowdoin’s long heave at the buzzer was well short.
The Panthers, who also routed NESCAC rival Colby, 85-64, on Friday, improved to 15-7, 5-3 in NESCAC play. Bowdoin, No. 18 in NCAA Division III, fell to 18-3, 5-3 NESCAC. The teams are tied for third in league play, with the top four teams hosting quarterfinals on Feb. 22.
The Panthers will complete their regular season next weekend with a pivotal Friday game at fifth-place Trinity (13-9, 5-4 NESCAC) and a Sunday game at first-place Amherst (20-3, 8-1).
Kizel, who finished with 19 points and five assists, said home court would be preferable, but he is more concerned that the Panthers maintain the level of focus they showed this past weekend.
“We’ve just got to keep playing with intensity, I think, regardless of what happens next weekend in terms of wins and losses,” Kizel said. “We’ve just got to play hard, that’s the most important thing, because we have a lot of talent.”
Coach Jeff Brown said it has been a struggle for his team to become consistent because it has been plagued by ailments and absences (the latest is a knee injury to freshman Matt St. Amour, who had seen regular playing time).
But Brown said the team has played better, even in a heartbreaking loss to Williams on Jan. 31, as he has been able to establish a playing rotation. It has also helped that one of the players who missed time, junior forward Dylan Sinnickson, returned to lead the team with 17.5 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.
“It took us a while because of guys being in and out. But now we’re just developing some consistency. And I think Dylan Sinnickson is a big part of it,” Brown said.
Kizel scored 13 and Sinnickson had 12 in Sunday’s first half, which the Panthers closed with an 11-4 run to take a 37-32 lead. In that run Sinnickson and junior forward Hunter Merryman hit threes, Kizel and Jensen each sank two free throws, and Connor Huff hit one. At the other end, John Swords, Bowdoin’s seven-foot center, threw down one of his several dunks, and White tallied two of his 11 first-half points.
A Kizel three at 13:08 of the second (set up by one of Jake Brown’s six assists) stretched the Panther lead to 50-42. But the Polar Bears responded with a 10-2 run over the next five minutes to tie the game. While Middlebury managed only a Jake Nidenberg tip-in, Lucas Hausman hit a trey and a free throw, and Andrew Madlinger (15 points) hit two treys, the second of which knotted the score at 52-52 at 9:10.
A three-point play by Jensen quickly made it 55-52 and strong work inside by Jensen 10 points, five rebounds, two blocks), Roberts (10 points, seven rebounds) and Merryman (seven points, three boards) pushed the lead to 64-59 at 2:10.
But Swords (16 points, 13 boards) scored inside, and two Madlinger free throws made it 64-63 with 25.4 seconds to go. Bowdoin then sent Jensen to the line; he hit one. Bowdoin missed, Roberts rebounded, was fouled, and he hit one to make it 66-63.
Then White — who scored 16 points with the Springfield boys’ team looking on — tied the game, and Bowdoin made its critical mistake to allow Kizel to win the game from the line.
Brown said the Panthers would take it.
“We’re obviously fortunate with the extra timeout Bowdoin called,” Brown said. “But the game was back and forth, and they’re having a tremendous season, nationally ranked, and certainly a balanced ballclub. Se we really feel good about the outcome.”
In the 85-64 win over Colby, Kizel tied a career-high with 30 points. Sinnickson finished with 20 points and six rebounds, while Roberts added eight points, seven rebounds and two blocks.
Brown and Kizel both noted six seniors on the team have been part of the group that has made three NCAA appearances, including trips to the Final Four and Elite Eight. Winning what could be their last appearances at home meant a lot.
“It’s big. We had a lot of support from the fans. It was senior weekend. We just wanted to come out and out-work all the teams,” Kizel said. “That’s what we did. We just want to keep this intensity, this momentum, going.”
Brown said the successful weekend could also set the stage for better things to come.
“I feel really good,” he said, “and I think our guys are really confident they are capable of really making a lot of noise in the NESCAC tournament.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]