Middlebury men's defense downs the Cardinals

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury College men’s basketball team finished its first semester with a good grade in its final exam, using stifling defense and points from every player on the roster to defeat visiting Plattsburgh on Saturday, 71-49.

The Panthers moved to 5-5 against a schedule that included eight road games, mostly against good competition, before two home wins last week.

Considering the team has a sophomore guard in the starting lineup, Jack Daly, and three freshmen in its rotation — guard Hilal Dahleh and forwards Eric McCord and Zach Baines are all averaging at least 10.8 minutes per game — Coach Jeff Brown is happy with his team’s play and record.

He believes the Panthers are on the upswing.

“I really have enjoyed the competitiveness of the group. I really feel like our group competes hard on the defensive end and on the backboards,” Brown said. “And we’ve been able to mix some of the younger players into the program and into the rotation, and I think that in the last couple weeks especially they’ve really grown and become more comfortable.”

Sophomore forwards Nick Tarantino and Adisa Majors and junior guard Bryan Jones have all played between 8.7 and 10.5 minutes per game behind the five starters — seniors Matt Daley and Connor Huff up front, and juniors Matt St. Amour and Jake Brown and Daly in the backcourt.     

“We are certainly two deep at every position,” Brown said. “It’s a nice mix of players that can be successful within our league and just moving forward.”

If anything needs work, it’s putting the ball in the basket. Even on Saturday, the Panthers hit just three of 19 from behind the arc and six of 12 free throws. Brown said his team has been improving in those departments, but must keep working if it is to succeed in NESCAC play.

“We need to shoot free throws better and more consistently, and shoot the ball better, especially from the three-point line,” Brown said. “Early in the season we struggled with both. We’re still trying to find ourselves at the line.”

Especially with Plattsburgh (4-2) missing its best outside shooter, Edward Correa, the Panthers could afford to see a few shots bounce off the rim.

PSU took an 8-2 lead, capped by a Thomas Xavier dunk that prompted Brown to time at 15:25. The Panthers responded with a 13-0 run and never looked back. Dahleh started the run with a transition hoop, and St. Amour hit a three. Jake Brown then drove for two and set up Huff on the break. St. Amour capped the run with back-to-back hoops, converting in the lane before stealing the ball and laying it in. PSU called time at 12:36.

Eli Bryant broke the 13-0 run with a turnaround jumper, but the Panthers went back to work. Baines nailed back-to-back hoops, in the post from Dahleh and then on the break from Daley. After a Cardinal free throw, Daley hit in the post. It was 21-11, and the Panther run was 19-3.

A big part of the shift in the game came from Brown’s decision to go to a 2-3 zone. With Correa, who averages 11.8 points and has hit 13 treys this winter, not available, the zone allowed the Panthers to frustrate the Cardinal forwards and force 20 turnovers.

Brown said he typically uses the zone just to show opponents a different look, but stuck with it on Saturday while PSU shot 27.3 percent.

At the half, Middlebury led, 36-17, with St. Amour capping the period with a coast-to-coast three-point play at 0:50.2 and a buzzer-beating three. Middlebury opened the second half with a 16-1 run in which Daley scored 10 points, including a fast-break dunk and two three-point plays inside, to make it 52-18.

The closest PSU came in the second half was 20 points, at 69-49. Bryant led PSU with 18 points, while Thomas had nine points and eight boards, and Kyle Richardson hauled in a game-high 12 boards.

St. Amour recorded 19 points, five boards and four of Middlebury’s 13 steals; Daley, 12 points and eight boards; Daly, eight of the Panthers’ 20 assists; Baines, six points and seven boards; and Dahleh, eight points and four boards.

Brown acknowledged both the team-wide contributions and the work of his two leading scorers.

“St. Amour really put us on his back with his strong first half scoring the ball, and Matt Daley kind of picked it up at the start of the second half for us,” he said, “but really a nice effort for our group.”

Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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