Panther men’s hoop wins NCAA regional

MIDDLEBURY — The chants rained down on the Middlebury College men’s basketball team from the rowdy student section as the final seconds ticked off in packed Pepin Gymnasium on Saturday: “Sweet Sixteen. Sweet Sixteen. Sweet Sixteen.”
By then the outcome of the 26-3 Panthers’ NCAA Division III Regional final vs. 24-5 Lycoming had long been determined. The Warriors, ranked No. 15, cut No. 6 Middlebury’s 20-point halftime lead to 14 several times in the second half, but every time the Panthers had an answer, often with a Matt St. Amour three-pointer, an assist from Jake Brown or Jack Daly, or a key rebound from Adisa Majors or Eric McCord.
It appeared certain that when the NCAA announced the sites of its four Sectionals — expected on Sunday after the deadline for the Independent — Pepin Gymnasium would be included on that list.
Middlebury is set to play Endicott (22-8) in one Sectional semifinal, while Susquehanna (22-5) will meet Williams (21-8) in the other. No. 17 Susquehanna, from Pennsylvania, is the only other ranked school in the group and the only one outside of New England.
Certainly, the Panthers are looking forward to hosting, even if Endicott and Williams defeated Panthers this season, although Middlebury then topped Williams in the NESCAC final.
“We’re hoping it will be here. I know our student section is hoping it will be here as well. I’m sure they’ll out in full support if it is,” said St. Amour (30 points, six three-pointers, five rebounds and four steals on Saturday). “It’s always fun to be at home, play in front of everybody, play in this atmosphere.”
Freshman forward Matt Folger, whose career-high 18 points on Saturday included a huge fast-break dunk set up by senior Bryan Jones, remembers watching his future teammates in the NCAA tournament on his cellphone a year ago.
On Saturday, that dunk raised the Pepin roof, turned into a three-point play, and sparked a 19-0 first-half Panther run in which Folger scored eight points. That run snapped a 19-19 tie, began at 10:18 and ended with a St. Amour three-point play at 6:28.
Folger described the difference between watching from afar on a five-inch screen and helping the Panthers to key win. 
“It’s so amazing. It’s so wonderful to see the environment and just to be in it,” Folger said. “I mean, just walking over here today for shoot-around I got goose bumps about this game.”
St. Amour hit back-to-back threes on assists after Folger’s dunk, but said the real story of the run was the 3-2 zone that Coach Jeff Brown opted for against the dangerously quick Warriors, who started four guards. 
“We got stops. We were able to communicate. Coach drew up a great game plan with the zone. We knew they had a couple of shooters, and we knew it was important for us to communicate to let each other know that those guys were the shooters, and the other guys we could sag off a little bit to pack in the middle,” St. Amour said. “Then we were able to get out in transition, where we’re at our best.”
The Warriors shot just 32.3 percent in the first half as the Panthers took a 50-30 lead, with Jones taking a Daly feed and streaking for a buzzer-beating layup for an exclamation point.
Lycoming kept trying to rally in the second half. Darius James (a team-high 13 points) had a hot streak, Calvin Chandler hit a couple of threes, and T.J. Duckett (12) and Nyk King (10) did some damage.
But when the Warriors threatened, Middlebury answered. At 54-40, Daly (14 points, six assists) and St. Amour hit back-to-back threes, both set up by Brown (10 assists). At 60-46, Brown assisted Folger on an inbounds play and a St. Amour trey.
At 65-50, McCord scored inside, and then St. Amour, as he dove onto the press table, flipped a behind-the-back pass to Daly for a three-point play that made it 70-50.
“We’re not worthy,” chanted the student section. Lycoming came no closer than 17 in the final 12:25.
Majors (12 points, 11 rebounds) and McCord (six points, nine boards) helped the Panthers to a 48-32 edge on the boards.
Brown said the basics helped the Panthers win.
“That was really the difference, on the defensive end, getting some stops, guarding their shooters on the three-point line, and rebounding the ball,” Brown said.
On Friday, the Panthers overcame poor shooting and a nine-point first-deficit to get past Farmingdale State, 84-75, in a tense first-round game. The Rams finished at 20-8.
Middlebury overcame the Rams’ early 25-16 lead to go up, 28-27, but Farmingdale took a 36-32 halftime lead. The Rams outrebounded the Panthers, 25-16, in the half.
The Panthers opened the second half with a 22-6 surge to make it 54-52, with points inside from Majors and McCord and threes from Folger and St. Amour.
The Panthers continued to miss shots, and the Rams used an 8-0 run to make it 75-71 at 2:30. Daly’s drive into the paint at 1:15 and late free throws secured the win.
Daly notched 18 points and 10 rebounds. Majors scored 18 points, 12 in the second half, adding 11 rebounds. St. Amour shot just five for 18, but scored 18 points with six assists, five steals and four rebounds. The Panthers shot just 41 percent from the floor, but came on strong on the boards in the second half to finish with a 44-42 edge.
George Riefenstahl scored 18 points for the Rams, adding 15 rebounds and four blocks. Matthew Graham scored 16, while Wendel Irvine scored 10 with eight boards.
St. Amour said the Panthers were a little tight on Friday, but that after Saturday they should be good to go. 
“We were a little too amped with the big crowd out here. We were excited to be playing in the NCAA tournament, especially at home,” he said. “Then we settled in tonight and played our game. And shots started to fall, and that’s when things start rolling. So I think the big thing was just getting that first one out of the way, getting the nerves out of the way.”

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