Men’s hoop falls to Tufts, hopes for NCAA bid

MIDDLEBURY — In a game this past Saturday, poor long-range marksmanship, foul trouble and a hot-shooting Tufts team ended the top-seeded Middlebury College men’s basketball team’s hopes for a third NESCAC playoff title in four years.
Middlebury’s 85-76 NESCAC quarterfinal loss to No. 8 Tufts also casts doubt on whether the 18-7 Panthers will receive an NCAA Division III tournament bid when the field is set on Monday.
Since 2008 the program has only twice not been picked for the NCAA field, and a win against the 12-13 Jumbos on Saturday probably would have punched the Panthers’ ticket again.
Coach Jeff Brown said the fact the Panthers have played five teams ranked in the top 25, three NESCAC teams as well as Swarthmore and Plattsburgh, could work in their favor.
“I think our strength of schedule is something the committee will point to,” Brown said on Saturday. “Again, there’s no telling. Some good teams are always left at home.”
Possibly the Jumbos came in with confidence on Saturday because of their 86-84 regular-season home win over the Panthers. They closed the game with an 18-4 run and shot from three-point range with confidence, hitting 11 of 24 overall and seven of 14 in the first half, including one at the buzzer by Tyler Aronson that put them on top, 41-39. Aronson sank three triples in the half, and Brennan Morris sank a pair.
Brown said his team did not defend the Jumbos poorly.
“They hit some contested shots,” he said. “That was an emphasis of the scout, was to really guard them at the three-point line. To their credit they hit a few where we had hands right in their face,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Panthers hit just four of 23 from behind the arc. They were also hampered when forwards Eric McCord and Matt Folger each picked up two early fouls. Folger eventually fouled out, and some of the calls appeared to be marginal.
McCord and point guard Jack Farrell each scored eight points in the first half, and the Panther bench chipped in 15 points in extended time, with guards Griffin Kornaker and Joey Leighton and forward Alex Sobel accounting for 13 of them.
The teams traded small leads for much of the second half, with the Panthers getting Folger and McCord involved early and Jumbo leading scorer Eric Savage getting untracked.
With nine minutes left, the Panthers went on a 9-4 run to lead by 72-67 at 5:32. Leighton swished a three set up by Kornaker, Farrell sank two free throws, and McCord hit inside twice.
But the Panthers managed only four points the rest of the way, a Kornaker layup on a nice pass from McCord that made it 75-74 Tufts, at 2:07, and another Kornaker hoop that created the final score in the waning seconds.
The trouble started when Justin Kouyoumdjian made it 72-71 with a four-point play (a three-pointer while being fouled and a free throw) at 5:18. Two Aronson free throws gave Tufts the lead at 4:08, and Aronson drove to make it 75-72 at 3:23. After Kornaker made it a one-point game at 2:10, Savage made a move to the hoop for two at 1:53.
Farrell couldn’t answer at the other end, and when Morris rebounded his own miss and laid it in at 0:55 to make it 79-74, the Panthers were in trouble. The Jumbos hit six free throws to ice the win.
McCord finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds. Farrell chipped in 13 points, six boards and four assists, while Folger and Kornaker (four assists) each scored nine.
Eric Savage led the Jumbos with 19 points to go along with 10 boards, while Aronson added 17 points and Morris had 16.
Brown cited the Jumbos’ game-closing run. 
“They showed great toughness and perseverance fighting through and making plays the last five minutes of the game,” Brown said.

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