Panthers beat Skidmore on last-second shot
MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury College men’s basketball team on Saturday completed its preseason goal of an undefeated first semester, but it took a dramatic comeback, some good luck and a last-second hoop from a player who had missed his first five shots.
Sophomore guard and former Missisquoi Valley Union High School standout Matt St. Amour made the most of a broken inbounds play with 7.2 seconds to go and visiting Skidmore — and former Vergennes Union High School all-star Connor Merrill — leading, 56-55.
Coach Jeff Brown had drawn up the play for Panther leading scorer Dylan Sinnickson, who had hit one of two three-pointers that helped the Panthers erase a 56-49 Thoroughbred lead with 40 seconds to go. Hunter Merryman’s 25-foot bomb had made it 56-55 with 23 seconds left.
Instead, the ball went into St. Amour on the left side of the lane. He circled into the paint, up-faked, and laid up a lefty shot that hung on the rim before dropping through with 1.5 seconds to go. Merryman then clinched the 57-56 win by intercepting a long desperation inbounds pass.
St. Amour — who also rebounded the second of two missed Skidmore free throws with 16 seconds left and called timeout to preserve the last Panther possession after Connor Huff dove on a loose ball — described the final seconds.
“We were looking for Dylan on a slip there, but they had it covered,” St. Amour said. “So I just got the ball and had a double and tried to make a play. Fortunately I was able to get into the lane a little bit and get him off his feet and finish inside. It was just crazy. It’s what you dream about.”
Brown said he had faith in St. Amour, who worked hard for almost a year to return to the lineup after a devastating knee injury that cut his freshman season short, even with his 0-for-5 shooting to that point.
“Matt did a terrific job out of making something out of nothing,” Brown said. “He’s such a gamer we certainly have confidence in him making a clutch shot.”
For Merrill’s Thoroughbreds, it was a lost opportunity to win against a top foe with a number of friends and family members at Pepin Gym to root him on. Merrill said his 3-4 squad has lots of potential, and has lost only to teams he believes will make the NCAA Division III tournament.
Although he led Skidmore with 15 points and blocked two shots and is the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, Merrill was upset he missed two free throws with 30 seconds to go, part of Skidmore’s four-for-15 effort in the second half.
“This is as talented a team as we’ve had. This is our fourth heartbreaking loss,” Merrill said. “That’s what separates us from these guys. They have the winning pedigree. They make plays at the end of the game, and we’re not used to doing that yet.”
Merrill is nearing 1,000 points, but said he just wants Skidmore to win its league and return to the NCAA tournament for the first time in four years.
“As much as the losing hurts right now, it’s going to build character, and I think we’ll be able to go through league play with a lot of success,” he said.
MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE SENIOR Hunter Merryman sails in for a dunk against Skidmore Saturday. Merryman scored 17 points in the Middlebury win. Independent photo/Trent Campbell
St. Amour’s hoop created the 15th and final lead change of Saturday’s defensive struggle. Halftime saw a 24-24 tie, with Skidmore shooting better than Middlebury, 40-26.7 percent, but the Panthers’ aggressive man-to-man defense forcing nine Thoroughbred turnovers.
The Panthers doubled Merrill and harassed high-scoring Skidmore guard Aldin Medunjanin, who shot 0-for-3 from the floor and finished with six points, about 10 below his average.
Brown noted Middlebury won despite shooting 29.9 percent.
“When you shoot below 30 percent and you find a way to win, it just really speaks volumes for our team and our team defense,” Brown said, adding, “We certainly weren’t in synch. They were probably the first team that has done a tremendous job of getting back and not allowing us easy opportunities in transition. So I certainly credit them. They certainly challenged us in the halfcourt.”
Skidmore used both man and 1-3-1 zone defenses, and the Panthers never gained offensive momentum, not even after a Merryman dunk gave them a 17-14 lead at 5:59 of the first. Instead, Skidmore went on a 10-3 run in which Merrill scored five points to take a 24-20 lead. Late buckets by Sinnickson (18 points, nine rebounds despite playing with an ankle sprain) and Dean Brierley tied the game at the break.
The Panthers led by three twice in the second half, for the second time at 40-37 at 13:00 on a three by Merryman set up by one of Jake Brown’s three assists.
But buckets from Eric Sanders (14 points, 11 boards), Merrill and Isaac Carp helped the Thoroughbreds move toward their 56-49 lead, their largest, on a lay-up by center Perun Kovacevic at 0:40.
Then the Panthers pulled out their improbable win on the big shots from St. Amour (five rebounds, six assists), Sinnickson and Merryman.
The Panthers have compiled their 7-0 record almost entirely without starting forward Matt Daley, who was injured early on. Brown said he should return to the lineup when play resumes on Jan. 2.
“Before Matt got injured he was playing quite well,” Brown said. “It will be a nice Christmas present for our program.”
St. Amour said the Panthers are just beginning to tap their potential.
“I think we’ll come back from the break and be even stronger,” he said. “I don’t think we have any limits right now. All of us came to Middlebury to hang banners in this gym, and that’s our goal.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].
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