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Panthers advance to semifinal after nail-biter at home

MIDDLEBURY — With 6:35 to go in Saturday’s men’s basketball NESCAC quarterfinal at Middlebury College’s, No. 7 Trinity’s Brian Ford sank a long three-pointer with Panther senior guard Tim Edwards right in his face.
The Panthers, No. 2 in NESCAC with an 8-1 record and No. 6 in NCAA Division III at 22-2, were staring at a 49-44 deficit. The possibility loomed of the Panthers being upset by a 10-13 team they had beaten by 14 points eight days before.
Edwards, a senior captain, described the Panthers’ attitude when they fell five points behind.
“We knew right now at this part of the season it’s win and move on. That’s it. If you lose you go home,” Edwards said. “So you might as well leave it all out on the floor.”
The Panthers were to that point just one for 16 from behind the three-point arc, and when they went inside to use their size advantage — not often enough, Edwards admitted afterward — shots sometimes frustratingly rolled off the rim. For the game, they shot just 30 percent.
So they crashed the boards and attacked the basket. At 5:30, forward Ryan Sharry put in a Panther miss to make it 49-46, bringing the packed house to its feet. The entire east side of the stands stood the rest of the way, joining the relentlessly chanting football team members.
Then freshman guard Jake Wolfin forced a turnover. Edwards burst into the lane and hit a short jumper: 49-48.
After another stop came a sequence that defined the Panthers’ will. Sharry missed a putback. Edwards wrestled the ball away from two Bantams, but couldn’t convert. Panther forward Jamal Davis’s tip bounced off the rim. Sharry rebounded, was fouled, and made two free throws at 2:51: 51-50, Panthers.
Ford wasn’t through, though: He swished another long three, and Trinity had the lead at 52-50 at about 2:30.
But Wolfin curled off a pick on the left side, and the freshman got nothing but net from behind the arc, and it was 53-52, Panthers, at 2:10.
Down the stretch, Nolan Thompson and Sharry grabbed key rebounds and the Panthers forced a traveling call. The Bantams had to foul Wolfin in the final minute. He sank both: 55-52.
Soon afterward, Trinity airballed a three, and Sharry hit a free throw to create a 56-52 final. Fittingly, the game ended with Edwards picking off a Bantam pass.
Coach Jeff Brown said that the Panthers’ determination made the difference, with Edwards setting the tone.
“It all starts with Tim Edwards, his toughness, the hits he takes picking up offensive charges and diving on loose balls,” Brown said. “That’s really been pretty contagious with this group.”
The late rally capped a game marked by Trinity’s smart tactics as well as sound defense. Trinity made up for its size disadvantage by using three guards and spreading the floor to use its quickness. The Bantams also milked the shot clock on each possession, thus limiting the Panthers’ chances to touch the ball and, Brown said, affecting their offensive flow.
“Offensively, we pretty much struggled for most of the game to get some rhythm,” Brown said.
Defensively, Brown also had to choose whether to attack the Bantam guards at halfcourt and risk them penetrating for easy shots, or opting for sounder defense and a slower pace. He picked the latter poison.
“There are two schools of thought. You can maybe go right after them. But … they’ve got three guards who are pretty quick and shoot the ball pretty well, and they were kind of breaking us down and getting into the lane,” Brown said.
The result was a game that was close throughout (28-26, Trinity at the half), especially with the Panthers misfiring from outside and not feeding Sharry, Davis and center Andrew Locke, especially in the first half. Edwards said they will focus more on the inside game this weekend at Williams: The Panthers will take on No. 3 Colby and No. 1 Williams faces No. 4 Bates on Saturday, and the final will be Sunday at noon. 
“Today we relied too much on jump shots. We should have just pounded it inside,” Edwards said. “When we did get it in there, we did get good looks.”
Bantam guards Ian Fels (15 points) and Ford (13) used Trinity’s offensive set well. Luke MacDougall (12 rebounds) and Chris Applegate (8) helped Trinity to a 40-40 rebounding standoff.
Sharry scored 14 of his 18 points in the second half to lead Middlebury. Edwards had 14 points; Wolfin, 7; and Locke and  Thompson, 6 each. Sharry and Ryan Wholey led Middlebury with 7 rebounds each, and Davis, Thompson and Edwards had 5 boards each. Locke delighted the crowd with six blocks.
It remains possible this will be the last game at Pepin for Edwards and fellow seniors Bill Greven and Kevin Kelleher, a co-captain who missed the season with an injury.
If so, they will have little to regret about picking Middlebury to play, Edwards said. The team has won more than 100 games in their careers, won its first NESCAC title, and is on the verge of a third straight NCAA appearance.
 “Me and my dad talk about that a lot. I pinch myself every day,” Edwards said. “It’s been a great ride, and hopefully it keeps going.”
Reporter Andy Kirkaldy is at [email protected]

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