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Panther men hold off Bobcats to win first round of NESCAC hoop tourney

MIDDLEBURY — It wasn’t easy, for sure, but the second-seeded Middlebury College men’s basketball team got past No. 7 Bates in Saturday’s NESCAC quarterfinal, 88-84, in a packed Pepin Gymnasium and will play this weekend in the NESCAC final four at No. 1 Tufts.
On this coming Saturday at 4 p.m., the 22-3 Panthers will face No. 5 Trinity (16-9), in a rematch of a game won at home by the Panthers on Feb. 11, 97-80. The winner advances to Sunday’s final at noon.
In the 2 p.m. semifinal, Tufts (20-5) will meet No. 6 Williams (18-7). Middlebury lost to both those teams this winter, 91-85 at Tufts on Jan. 13 and 89-65 at Williams on Jan. 22.
But Coach Jeff Brown noted on Saturday those are the Panthers’ only road losses this season.
“Playing on the road hasn’t been a hardship for this group,” Brown said. “We play the same level of basketball home and away.”
What is unknown is whether starting senior point guard Jake Brown, who missed the Feb. 11 Trinity game and Saturday’s quarterfinal with an ankle injury, can suit up this weekend.
“Hopefully his health will get a little bit better,” said Coach Brown about his point guard and nephew. “It’s hard to predict. We’ll have a better idea toward the middle of the week.”
Jake Brown’s injury is just the latest obstacle the Panthers have overcome. Sophomore guard Hilal Dahleh, a contributor a year ago, has not played this season due to injury, while sophomore forward and then second-leading scorer Zach Baines transferred in December.
Senior guard and NESCAC leading scorer Matt St. Amour said other players like Eric McCord, Adisa Majors and Nick Tarantino in the frontcourt and in the past two games senior Bryan Jones at guard have just stepped in and allowed the Panthers to keep ticking.
“We’ve had some ups and downs with who is going to play even on a daily basis with injuries, transfers, sicknesses. You name it and we’ve had it this year. Coach Brown just says next man up, and he’s brought in guys that if you can’t play, if you’re not tough, then you’re not going to be part of this program,” St. Amour said. “We have guys who don’t know if they’re going to play on a day-to-day basis, but they’re always ready.”
Coach Brown agreed.
“This group of young men is really resilient,” Brown said. “The chemistry of the group is really terrific. They get along together really well, and they support each other really well. And we were really confident knowing Jake wasn’t going to play this weekend, and we were really confident last weekend when he couldn’t go against Trinity.”
That confidence showed as the Panthers bolted to a game-high 35-18 lead over Bates with 4:49 to go in the first half. The Bobcats opened with a zone, a strategy that backfired as St. Amour (34 points total, plus five assists) diced it for 18 of his 21 first-half points.
But the Bobcats closed the half with a 15-8 run that included two Tom Coyne threes and finished with a monster follow-up slam by Marcus Delpeche that made it 43-33.
The Bobcats cut into the lead in the second half as Coyne (four for seven from behind the arc) and fellow freshman guards Nick Gilpin (four for seven) and Jeff Spellman (two for four) all hit from long range.
Bates also switched to a man-to-man defense, an effective strategy without Jake Brown available to help break it down. Despite buckets from Tarantino (seven points, six rebounds), McCord (13 points, 11 rebounds) and Majors (10 points, four boards), Bates slowly crept closer. A Gilpin three at 11:24 made it 58-52, Middlebury, and Brown called time.
It didn’t help: Justin Zukowski sank a three, Malcolm Delpeche (17 points, 11 boards) hit inside, and Coyne converted a steal to make it 59-58, Bates, at 8:37. A St. Amour drive gave Middlebury the lead, but a Marcus Delpeche jumper at 7:40 put Bates on top.
At 7:20, Jones (nine points, four assists) took a feed from Jack Daly (14 points and 11 assists) and drilled a three to put the Panthers up by three. But three Bates free throws tied the game at 66-66.
St. Amour hit a three at 5:37 to put the Panthers on top for good, 69-66. At the other end, the Delpeche brothers kept Bates alive, but Middlebury had more answers: two Majors free throws, St. Amour and McCord hoops, and a three-point play from Daly at 2:33 that made it 78-70.
After two Marcus Delpeche free throws, a Daly putback made it 80-72 at 1:29, and after a Bates free throw Daly hit two free throws at 1:10 to make it 82-73. It looked like a safe lead.
Bates didn’t get the memo. Marcus Delpeche (18 points, eight rebounds) hit two free throws and stole the inbound pass and laid it in to make it 82-77 at 0:46. While Daly and St. Amour each hit one of two free throws, Gilpin drove for two and hit a three, and at 0:27 it was 84-82. But St. Amour, at 0:22.8, and Daly, at 0:8.6, each sank two free throws to clinch the win and make a Malcolm Delpeche putback a moot point.
St. Amour said the Panthers’ toughness served them well in matching the Bobcats’ determination.
“They did a great job in the second half slowing us down a little bit, setting up in man-to-man. They were pretty physical,” he said. “But we have 13 tough guys in there, and that’s really what it takes, just grit and fighting through, getting those offensive rebounds, those loose balls, getting those extra possessions. Even when the shots weren’t falling we were doing those things to get the extra looks.”
It is possible the Panthers could host an NCAA regional in a couple weeks — or that St. Amour and classmates Jones, Brown and Liam Naughton have played their last home games. 
“I try not to reflect on it too much, yet, but it’s been a great four years. I’ve been so happy to come to such a great school and great community, and I love playing in Pepin, especially when it’s this lively,” St. Amour said. “These are the types of games you want. Trying to shoot some free throws at the end to clinch it is what you dream about when you want to play college basketball.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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