Panther men’s hoop advances in NESCAC

MIDDLEBURY — No. 3 Middlebury College men’s basketball played a terrific first 25-plus minutes against visiting No. 6 Hamilton in Saturday’s NESCAC quarterfinal, and it proved to be enough as the Panthers outlasted the Continentals, 81-77.
The 17-8 Panthers led, 46-33, at the break. And when senior guard Joey Kizel fed junior Dylan Sinnickson for a dunk at 14:38 of the second half, they led by a game-high 61-39, and appeared to be well on the way to this weekend’s final four at Amherst.
The Panthers then turned the ball over five times in the next three minutes, during which the 14-11 Continentals ripped off a 12-0 run to pull within 61-51.
Middlebury never shook Hamilton again, and with 20 seconds to go the Continentals pulled within three on two Matt Hart free throws following one of the Panthers’ 15 turnovers.
But Kizel then hit one of two free throws at 0:16.7. To that point, Middlebury had missed four of its past eight attempts, including the front end of two one-and-ones. Hunter Merryman (who led the Panthers with 17 points on five-for-six shooting) then rebounded a miss at the other end, and Kizel hit two more free throws at 0:6.5 to put the game out of reach at 81-77.
Coach Jeff Brown praised the Panthers’ offensive efficiency over the first nearly 26 minutes.
“We shot almost 60 percent in the first half and started out strong in the second half,” Brown said.
But then Hamilton upped its defensive effort while the Panthers allowed their execution to slip.
“They really dug in, and we weren’t as effective running our offense the last 13, 14 minutes of the game,” Brown said.
Hamilton also gave the Panthers a different look offensively, with double screens on the top, and Brown said they scored several hoops in that stretch before Middlebury adjusted.
“We’re fortunate we had the cushion we had, because down the stretch we missed some timely free throws and made a couple turnovers that almost came back to bite us,” Brown said.
Senior forward James Jensen sparked a 10-0 run that allowed Middlebury to take a 23-14 first-half lead, setting up a Merryman three-pointer, completing a three-point play in the lane, and then assisting the first of Jake Nidenberg’s back-to-back hoops in the post.
Overall, Merryman scored 10 of his points, Kizel had eight of his 14 and Sinnickson seven of his 12 as Middlebury took its 46-33 lead at the break. The Panthers also outrebounded Hamilton, 19-13, in the half.
After halftime, Merryman, Kizel and Sinnickson hit threes; Jensen (nine points, three assists) drove for two; and senior center Jack Roberts (nine points, six boards, two blocks) followed his own miss before Sinnickson’s dunk made it 61-39.
Then Panthers managed just 20 points more in the final 14:38. Off the bench, Nidenberg, Dean Brierley and Connor Huff contributed points, and key baskets by Merryman at 4:45 and Jensen at 3:05 kept the lead in double digits.
But then the Panthers started missing free throws, and the Continentals kept scoring. Middlebury needed a last minute, press-breaking three-point play from Roberts and the late free throws from Kizel (who added six assists and six rebounds) to seal the win.
Post player Ajani Jones led Hamilton with 18 points, while guards Greg Newton and Hart added 11 apiece. The Panthers did well to contain Hart, who averages 21 points and scored 30 points as the Continentals upset them earlier this season. Jake Brown, who also chipped in five assists, was among those who excelled at denying Hart the ball.
Coach Brown said the Panthers will go over what went wrong down the stretch, but did well to pull out the win.
“We’ll show them the tape and treat it as a learning lesson, that if you do have a lead you do have to continue to run offense,” he said. “But, again, it’s a great opportunity to play next weekend. I’m proud our guys hung together, especially our seniors. To finish off their seasons with a home win was really nice.”
This Saturday at Amherst, the top-seeded Jeffs (21-3) will take on No. 5 Trinity (15-10) at 1 p.m., and the Panthers will meet No. 2 Williams (21-3) at 4 p.m. The winners will meet on Sunday at noon with the NESCAC’s automatic NCAA Division III bid on the line.
Brown likes the Panthers’ chances.
“I think we’re very, very capable,” he said. “It’s just a matter of sustained performance.”

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