Panthers upset by RIC in NCAA regionals

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury College men’s basketball team’s dreams of a deep run into the NCAA basketball tournament ended with a cold-shooting first half in Pepin Gymnasium on Saturday night, when Rhode Island College upset the Panthers, 75-59.
The 25-4 Panthers scored just five points in the first 10 minutes against the swarming defense of the smaller, but quicker Anchormen. They trailed at the half, 37-22, after hitting just eight of 30 shots in the first 20 minutes.
Middlebury regained its offensive poise in the second half, when Ryan Sharry dominated inside for 20 or his 25 points and the Panthers shot 53 percent. But the Panthers couldn’t slow a balanced RIC attack. Five Anchormen scored in double figures; the RIC bench outscored the Panther bench, 33-6; and RIC shot 52 percent in the second half.
And, as Sharry noted, the Anchormen responded when the Panthers threatened in the late going.
“We kept making runs, they kept making big shots,.” Sharry said. “I’ve got to give them credit, for sure. They played a hell of a game. We caught our groove too late, I guess.”
Panther coach Jeff Brown pointed to the inside shots his team missed early on, which seemed to put the Middlebury offense out of synch and give RIC more confidence defensively. Brown also noted Middlebury made just two of 22 three-pointers and nine of 17 free throws, while RIC hit eight of 18 from behind the arc in the first half.
“That really was the kicker for us, being down 10 points in the first several minutes, especially in a game where we miss some chippies early and they were able to string some shots,” he said.
In the first half, the Panthers showed life when Jake Wolfin (13-points) hit back-to-back threes and converted a lay-up after a steal to cut what had been an 13-point RIC lead to 20-13 at 7:00. But five points from Mike Akinrola and late threes from Darius Debnam and Nick Manson gave RIC its 15-point lead at the break.
RIC extended its lead to 42-24 early in the second half, but then back-to-back dunks from Andrew Locke (nine points, four blocks), the second set up by Tim Edwards, ignited a 14-2 Panther run that brought most of the 1,100 fans to their feet and made the score 44-36 at 15:20.
Reserve forward Carl Lee came into restore order for RIC with five points, and shortly afterward a put-back and a fast-break hoop by Mason Choice made it 53-40, RIC.
Then Sharry did his best to take over the game. Attacking the basket, Sharry had all but two points, a Wolfin drive, in a 12-5 Panther run that made it 58-52, RIC, at 7:10. Antone Gray sank a jumper to make it 60-52, but Nolan Thompson answered on the break for Middlebury, and it was 60-54.
Choice sank a three to make it a nine-point game, and two Sharry free throws at 5:44 made it 63-56. That would be as close as Middlebury came: Akinrola scored inside and Gray drove the lane to trigger an 8-2 run that put the game out of reach.
Sharry finished with a career-high 14 rebounds, and Edwards contributed 7 rebounds, 6 assists and 3 blocks.
In the final minute, the Middlebury fans saluted Edwards, the team’s only senior starter, with a prolonged chant. Brown said much of the Panthers’ remarkable effort and defensive intensity — they led the nation in field goal percentage for most of the winter — can be traced to Edwards.
“In my 28 years in coaching I’ve never coached anybody that’s given more effort on the defensive end and has given so much to his teammates and the program,” Brown said. “To a large degree it’s been contagious in that Tim has brought up the level of competition. He’s the ultimate warrior, just a great, great competitor.”
Brown praised his entire team for the most productive two seasons in program history, a combined 49-8 record and two NCAA appearances, and a school record 25 wins this winter.
“It’s been truly outstanding. The character of this group has been really at a high level,” Brown said.
Sharry acknowledged both all the Panthers have accomplished — including Friday’s first-round, 64-57 win over Gordon — as well as the pain of falling short on Saturday.
“It’s been a hell of a two years. I wouldn’t give it up for anything. It’s been amazing. We definitely have something to build off of,” Sharry said. “I definitely have to thank the seniors for all the leadership and everything they’ve given us. They’ve been great. We got our first tournament win. That’s one silver lining, I guess. But it hurts. It definitely hurts.”
For a write-up of Friday’s men’s hoop win, including comments by Brown and Locke, check the On the Ball blog at addisonindependent.com. On the Ball will also appear online on Monday once the NCAA pairings are out for Panther men’s hockey. Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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