Men’s hoop wins league, NCAA’s next

HARTFORD, Conn. — After winning the NESCAC playoff championship by knocking off the top two seeds this past weekend, the 17-10 Middlebury College men’s basketball team is back in the NCAA Division III basketball tournament this weekend.
The Panthers were assigned to an NCAA regional at Stockton College in Gallaway, N.J., where they will take on Salisbury University (21-6) on Friday. Host Stockton (21-6) will face Keene State (18-10), a team the Panthers defeated, 83-74, in January, in the other regional first-round game. The winners will meet in the final on Saturday.
Middlebury, seeded fourth, claimed its third NESCAC championship with an 81-79 win over second-seeded Amherst in Sunday’s title game, which was played at Trinity. The Panthers defeated top-seeded Trinity the day before at the same site, 70-58, in the semifinal round. The Panthers also claimed NESCAC tournament titles in 2009 and 2011.
Sunday’s tense final featured 23 lead changes and 10 ties. Middlebury took an early 12-6 lead on a conventional three-point play by Matt Daley. Amherst (22-5) responded with a 19-2 surge over the next 5:20 for its largest lead at 25-14 after connecting on four straight three-point shots, including the last two from Michael Riopel.
Middlebury fought back to within 36-35 at the break by scoring the last six points of the half, including the final two on a coast-to-coast circus shot by Jake Brown at the horn.
The game was close throughout the second half with neither squad leading by more than three points after the 18:50 mark until the Panthers took a five-point lead in the final seconds. The half included 19 lead changes and eight ties, Middlebury trailed with 90 seconds left by 76-75 after a three-pointer from the left corner by Amherst’s Jeff Racy. Middlebury’s Matt St. Amour answered by driving to put the Panthers ahead for good at 77-76 with a minute left.
On the other end of the floor, Daley swatted a Riopel layup out of bounds, and the Purple & White’s John McCarthy missed a three pointer at 0:51.
Middlebury missed a jumper, but Amherst was called for a palming violation. Amherst pressed and went for the steal, but failed, and instead chose to foul freshman forward Zach Baines. He hit both free throws to give the Panthers a 79-76 lead at 0:26. McCarthy missed a shot from beyond the arc at 0:12, and St. Amour grabbed the crucial rebound, was fouled and sealed the win with two free throws. McCarthy’s long three-pointer as time expired made it an 81-79 final.
St. Amour had a game-high 22 points along with seven rebounds and four assists. With those 22 points, the junior guard moves into second place on Middlebury’s single-season scoring list (521), trailing 1988 graduate John Humphrey’s total of  621. He also upped his career mark to 979 points entering the NCAA tournament.
Jack Daly posted a double-double consisting of 13 points and a game-best 12 rebounds including seven offensive boards, many in the second half to keep key Panther possessions alive. Daley contributed 16 points, including a big three-point play late in the game, on seven-for-eight shooting, and added five boards. Baines tallied 12 points off the Panther bench, while Brown had nine points and dished out a game-high nine assists.
Riopel led four Amherst players with 17 points and added seven rebounds, while Racy and McCarthy both chipped in 13 points.  The Purple & White converted 13 of 29 of their shots from beyond the arc, while the Panthers hit just three of 16 from three-point range. The Panthers won the rebounding battle, 44-33.
In Saturday’s 70-58 win over Trinity, the Panthers trailed just once, 23-20, late in the first half. Middlebury then closed the half on a 14-2 run to lead at the break, 34-25. A St. Amour three gave the Panthers the lead for good, and a Baines hoop capped the surge.
Points from Brown and Daley helped extend the lead to a game-high 48-32 before the Bantams countered with a 13-4 run to cut the lead to 52-45 with 5:57 left to play on a Shay Ajayi drive.
St. Amour answered with three free throws to restore the lead to 10 at 55-45. The Bantams made another push, and an Ed Ogundeko free throw with 2:43 left in regulation made it a 61-55 contest. But the Panthers allowed only one more hoop the rest of the way and sealed the win by hitting nine of 10 from the line in the final 1:08 to win going away.
St. Amour had a game-high 20 points and a team-best nine rebounds. Daley recorded 18 points and six boards, Majors had 11 and six rebounds, and Brown chipped in 11 points and a game-high eight assists.
Ajayi was the lone Bantam to reach double figures with 11 points, while Ogundeko had seven points and nine rebounds.
Middlebury’s defense limited the Bantams to only 32.8 percent from the floor, a good enough effort to overcome 22 turnovers. Trinity turned the ball over 13 times.

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