Panther men advance to NESCAC semis

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury College men’s basketball team pulled away down the stretch of Saturday’s NESCAC quarterfinal vs. Wesleyan to win, 61-49, and potentially set up rematches with both teams that have defeated the Panthers this winter.
The 22-2 Panthers, seeded third in the NESCAC playoffs, will face No. 2 Williams on Saturday at 3 p.m. at Amherst. The Ephs edged the Panthers in Williamstown, 64-63, on Jan. 26. No. 4 Tufts (17-8) will meet No. 1 Amherst (23-2) at 1 p.m., and the final is set for noon on Sunday. Amherst defeated the host Panthers, 104-101, in triple overtime on Feb. 9.
Panther Coach Jeff Brown said he won’t make major changes against the Ephs or Jeffs this weekend.
“Both games were really exciting and came down to the end,” he said. “We’ve just got to play a tiny bit better.”
But rebounding will be an emphasis. The Jeffs pulled down 19 offensive boards vs. Middlebury, and Wesleyan hauled in 13 on Saturday.
Senior guard and tri-caption Nolan Thompson — who on Saturday harassed NESCAC leading scorer Shasha Brown into shooting one-for-11 from the floor — acknowledged board work would be a point of emphasis this week.
“It’s been an issue all year for us, and it’s not just the bigs. We (the guards) need to come down and help,” Thompson said. “We really need to focus on that next weekend.”
Brown agreed the Panthers probably have to do better in that department “to maybe win two games next weekend,” but said Middlebury made strides vs. Wesleyan in solving another problem. Against the Cardinals in the regular season, the Panthers lost a late lead before winning, and the Ephs overcame a seven-point Panther lead in the final four minutes.
On Saturday, the Panthers got a couple good looks late — a Jake Wolfin drive to make it 51-39 at 4:50 and a Joey Kizel trey at 2:45 to make it 54-39 — while still being patient.
“It’s been a little bit of an issue all year closing out games, having a little bit of separation and kind of working the clock and not getting high-quality shots,” Brown said. “And today I thought we did a good job around the four-minute mark of slowing the pace of the game down and getting some scores.”
Thompson also said the Panthers may have learned a lesson: Middlebury didn’t “ease off the gas” on Saturday.
“A lot of times we get passive if we have a lead,” Thompson said. “Today, we focused more on still keeping attacking, trying to push the lead.”
Saturday’s first half was a defensive struggle. Middlebury never trailed and settled for a 24-21 lead when Kizel (20 points on seven-for-11 shooting) hit a late jumper.
The Panthers opened in a 3-2 zone that nullified the Cardinals’ quickness, but Wesleyan’s forwards crashed the boards effectively. Glen Thomas had eight of his 11 points and nine of his 12 rebounds in the first half to keep the Cardinals close despite their 31 percent shooting. Panther forward Peter Lynch had eight of his 12 and Kizel scored seven before the break.
The Panthers mostly relied on man defense after the break, with guards Thompson, Kizel and Wolfin holding Brown and Derek Beresford (who had averaged a combined 30.5 points per game) to eight points on two-for-21 from the floor. Only Mike Callaghan proved effective in the second half; he finished with 19 points.
Brown credited all the defenders against a team with three 1,000-point scorers.
“We certainly did a terrific job on the defensive end,” he said.
But he singled out Thompson.
“There’s not another player in this league that could control Shasha the way Nolan did,” Brown said. “He might be a once-in-a-lifetime type of defensive player.”
Wolfin (12 points, three assists) added a second-half spark on offense as the Panthers opened with a 12-4 run in the first 5:14 to make it 36-23. In that stretch Wolfin hit a three-point play on the break, sank a three-pointer, and set up a Jack Roberts layup.
The lead was still 11 before a putback by Chris Tugman and a Callahan three made it 41-35. But Wolfin hit a three on an inside-outside feed from Lynch, and then after two Cardinal free throws, Wolfin set up Thompson (12 points) for a three at 7:50. The lead was 10, 47-37, and Wesleyan came no closer.  
The Panthers have all-but-certainly already clinched an NCAA Division III tournament berth, but this coming weekend could determine whether they will host a regional, something that would be most welcome for Thompson and the other Middlebury seniors.
 “It would be amazing. It was weird thinking today that it was possibly the last time,” Thompson said. “So I’m really hoping we can come back, yeah. It would be really nice. I don’t want this to be the end.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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