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Men’s hoop: Panthers enter playoffs on a roll

MIDDLEBURY — After two key NESCAC home wins this past weekend, the Middlebury College men’s basketball team will begin its quest for its fourth league playoff championship since 2009 at home this Saturday as the tournament’s No. 2 seed. The Panthers also won a non-league game on Tuesday.
The Panthers, now ranked No. 10 in NCAA Division III according to D3hoops.com, improved to 21-3, 8-2 in NESCAC play, by defeating then No. 8 Amherst this past Friday and following that up by knocking off Trinity on Saturday to nail down the league’s second seed.
Middlebury will host No. 7 Bates (15-9, 4-6 NESCAC) at 2 p.m. on Saturday in a rematch of a game played at Bates this winter and won by the Panthers, 79-71.
Tickets for that game are being sold in a package with the 4 p.m. Panther women’s basketball quarterfinal at $5 for adults and $2 for students and seniors. They are available through the college: Readers are advised to go online to athletics.middlebury.edu, find the men’s basketball article, and use the “Click Here” link. Remaining tickets will be sold at the door at 1 p.m. on Saturday.
Tufts (19-5, 8-2) finished tied with the Panthers for first place, but the host Jumbos defeated Middlebury this season, 91-85, and thus earned the tiebreaker for the top seed. Amherst (17-6, 7-3) is seeded third, and Wesleyan (19-5, 6-4) is seeded fourth.
The highest remaining seed after this weekend’s quarterfinal round will host the NESCAC final four on Feb. 25 and 26. The winner of the NESCAC tournament will earn the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament; Middlebury, Amherst and Tufts, all ranked in the top 20, appear to be good bets to earn at-large bids regardless of NESCAC results.
If the Panthers — who were set to play one more regular season game at Plattsburgh on Wednesday — advance to the NCAA tournament, they will do so for the eighth time in the past 10 years under Coach Jeff Brown.
 A year ago Middlebury won the NESCAC tournament as the No. 4 seed, upsetting No. 1 Trinity and No. 2 Amherst in the final four on the way to a title the Panthers also won in 2009 and 2011. The Panthers then won one NCAA game.
On this past Friday vs. Amherst, the Panthers shot 61 percent in the first half to lead by 59-38 at the break in a 106-91 victory. Amherst cut Middlebury’s second-half lead to 11 at one point, but never came within single digits.
Buckets from Matt St. Amour often stopped Amherst runs, and Middlebury put the game away for good with 2:54 to go when St. Amour drilled a long three to make it 101-85.
St. Amour finished with a game-high 31 points, shooting six of 12 from behind the arc. His six three-point field goals tied a career high, and he added four assists. With his 31 points, he moved into sixth place all-time at Middlebury with 1,487 points, surpassing Jason Prenevost, who netted 1,457.
After adding 28 more points on Saturday, St. Amour was named the NESCAC Player of the Week and moved into fourth in the all-time program scoring table.
Jake Brown scored 23 points and dished out six assists for the Panthers on Friday, but injured his ankle and played only the first two minutes on Saturday. Jack Daly finished with 14 points, a game-high 12 boards and seven assists. Forward Nick Tarantino went six for nine from the floor for a dozen points, and guard Bryan Jones added 10 points off the bench.
Jayde Dawson led Amherst with 24 points to surpass 1,000 career points in the game, and Johnny McCarthy scored 19. 
As critical as Friday’s victory was, the Panthers needed to win on Saturday to nail down home court for a quarterfinal: Trinity came in with a 6-3 league mark, and a win would have given them a tiebreaker over the Panthers.
And the Panthers started slowly in what turned into a 97-80 victory. The teams traded early leads until the Panthers pulled ahead by 25-19. Trinity scored the next hoop, but then the Panthers went on a 21-5 surge.
 St. Amour produced eight points during the spurt, while Jones, a senior seeing his first career start with Brown sidelined, added five. Jones concluded the run with a three-pointer that made it 46-26 with 2:26 remaining in the half.
Trinity called time and answered with points from Ed Ogundeko to pull within 50-36 at the break. The Bantams came out firing in the second half, cutting the lead to 62-53 on an Eric Gendron layup at 14:58.
Middlebury answered with another run, 17-5 over the next seven minutes, with seven points from St. Amour and contributions from Adisa Majors, Tarantino and Daly, whose three-pointer made it 79-58 with 8:01 left. 
St. Amour scored his game-high 28 points on 11-for-16 shooting, including four-for-five from behind the arc. In the game he moved another two spots up the program’s career point list to 1,515, surpassing both Joey Kizel (1,493) and Kevin Kelleher (1,498).
Daly finished with 19 points, a game-high 10 rebounds and nine assists. Jones netted 16 points with four threes, Tarantino chipped in 10 points, and forward Eric McCord contributed eight points, eight rebounds and six assists.
Jeremy Arthur led Trinity with 19 points, while Ogundeko scored 14 and pulled down a team-best nine rebounds.
On Tuesday, the Panthers breezed past host Plattsburgh, 91-70, as Matt St. Amour continued to make history: He became the first Middlebury player with two 500-point seasons by scoring a game-high 30 to give him 521 on the year. He went 11 for 15 from the floor including five for seven from behind the arc and also notched five boards, three assists and three steals.
St. Amour also scored five points in an 11-0 run that stretched the Panther lead to 69-49 midway through the second half.
Daly contributed a career-high 13 assists to go along with 15 points and three steals. Tarantino scored nine points and pulled down a game- high 11 rebounds, while Majors scored 17 points off the bench.
Jonathan Patron led the 11-12 Cardinals with 16 points.

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