Panther mens hoop team finishes semester 7-1 after one-point win

MIDDLEBURY — Big plays by senior guards Jake Brown and Matt St. Amour late in Saturday’s home game allowed the Middlebury College basketball team to hold off a Skidmore rally from 17 points down and win, 72-71.
Brown’s offensive rebound and layup with 1:16 to go erased a 71-70 Thoroughbred lead, and St. Amour blocked a shot with two seconds to go to seal a victory that pushed the Panthers to 7-1 heading into their holiday break.
It was fitting that offense from Brown made the difference at one end: He finished with 22 points and nine assists. And when the Panthers struggled in the second half after taking a lead of 45-28 late in the first half, Brown answered: He went four-for-six from the field and was the only Panther to make more than one shot from the floor in the second half.
And it was fitting that defense sealed the win. Skidmore (5-3) shot 53.8 percent from the floor, but the Panthers forced 21 turnovers, stole the ball 15 times, blocked five shots, and outrebounded the Thoroughbreds, 33-28.
“That’s a really good Skidmore team, a tournament team the past couple years,” St. Amour said. “What we did defensively is really why we won that game.”
Opponents have only twice scored more than 80 points vs. Middlebury, most notably when No. 20 Endicott rallied for a 93-89 win over the Panthers on Nov. 27. They are allowing 72.8 points per game, and opponents are shooting 42.5 percent.
St. Amour, who finished with 11 points, four assists and game highs of six rebounds and four steals, said if the Panthers repeat as NESCAC champs it will be because of defense.
“When we dig in and have that sense of urgency on defense, communicate, we’re a pretty good defensive team, which is how we won it last year,” he said. “And that’s what we have to do again this year.”
It would also help if they play offensively like they did in Saturday’s first half, when the ball moved crisply, seven Panthers scored, and the defense forced 13 turnovers to created transition hoops.
The key stretch came when Middlebury led, 28-25 at 6:51, after leading Skidmore scorer Edvinas Rupkus broke loose for a couple of hoops (he finished with 16 points) to erase most of an earlier Panther 11-point lead.
Then, hoops from Brown, St. Amour, Nick Tarantino (six points, five rebounds, two blocks off the bench) and a putback by freshman forward Matt Folger pushed the lead to the game-high 17, 45-28, with 0:43 to go in the half. A three-point play from Skidmore’s Pat Gallagher made it 45-31 at the break.
The second half opened with two Middlebury turnovers and a drive from Rupkus followed by a trey from guard Royce Paris (13 points) to cut the lead to nine, and Coach Jeff Brown called time to refocus the Panthers.
It didn’t help. St. Amour said the Panthers have had trouble in some second halves, notably the Endicott game, in which the Gulls erased a 17-point Panther lead after the break.
The solution, he said, is just to play basketball.
“We’ve got to come out and just play the way we play, come out with energy, come out defensively and get some steals, get out in transition and do what we do,” St. Amour said.
On Saturday, Skidmore chipped away. Paris, center Marcus Jackson (13 points), Rupkus and point guard Aldin Medunjanin kept making plays. After a Folger jumper made it 64-58, Panthers, with 8:25 to go, Skidmore went on a 9-0 run to take its first lead, 67-64, at 4:10. While the Panthers sputtered on the attack and missed free throws, Rupkus sank two from the line, Paris hit two lay-ups, Jackson converted inside, and Medunjanin nailed a go-ahead trey.
St. Amour answered with a tying three, and the crowd of about 800 came back to life. Medunjanin restored the Skidmore lead with a jumper at 2:30, but junior guard Jack Daly (seven points, three steals) drove and converted a three-point play to make it 70-69 at 2:13. Rupkus answered with a drive at 1:50, and Skidmore had the lead.
Daly missed a trey from the wing, and it looked like Skidmore’s Charlie Williams had the board. Instead, Brown cut in from the right side, ripped the ball away and dribbled into the left corner. Brown headed back to the lane and converted a tough layup in traffic at 1:16.
“He’s just so good at getting into paint and attacking,” St. Amour said. “That play was just tough. That’s what Jake does. That was a great play to finish off an amazing game by him.”
St. Amour then stole the ball from Rupkus, but missed with 23 seconds to go, giving Skidmore one more chance. Medunjanin drove into the paint from the right side, but Tarantino, Zach Baines (who chipped in 11 points) and Brown denied him. He dished to the left corner to Paris. St. Amour, who had stepped to the middle to help, recovered to tip Paris’ shot away, grab the loose ball and toss it toward midcourt as time expired.
“When he kicked it out I tried to close out as fast as I could, tried to get back, because I didn’t want to see what would happen if they kicked it to my guy and he was wide open and he hit a three,” St. Amour said.
On Wednesday, the Panthers earned an 86-72 win at Southern Vermont for an 86-72. Middlebury trailed early in the second half, but outscored the 2-6 Mountaineers 44-29 over the final 17:12.
The Panthers took a 40-36 lead into the locker room. After the Mountaineers took a 43-42 lead early in the second, four straight points inside from Baines, the second two on a dunk, gave the Panthers the lead for good.
Daly led Middlebury in points (20) and rebounds (eight), while adding seven assists. Adisa Majors tied a career high with 18 points and Brown recorded 11 points and 10 assists. Baines added 10 points, and Tarantino chipped in eight points and seven rebounds.
The real drama and satisfaction came in Pepin Gymnasium three days later, when the Panthers made their holidays a little brighter.
“It wouldn’t have been a happy next three weeks,” St. Amour said. “Going into the break it’s always nice to win that last one.” 

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