Men’s hoop tops Bowdoin, reaches NESCAC semis
“It’s a team game, and the chemistry of this group is really special. They’re just really close.”
— Panther Coach Jeff Brown
MIDDLEBURY — Eight minutes into Sunday’s NESCAC men’s basketball playoff game, the third-seeded Middlebury College team took an 18-7 lead over visiting No. 11 Bowdoin and, maintained the advantage and won 91-72.
The Panthers improved to 18-5, while Bowdoin dropped to 13-13.
Middlebury will head to Middletown, Conn., this weekend for the NESCAC final four. The Panthers will face No. 4 Williams (16-3) on Saturday at 4:30 p.m., after top-seed Wesleyan (22-3) and No. 7 Trinity (16-8), an upset winner over No. 2 Tufts, meet at 2 p.m.
Coach Jeff Brown noted the youth of his Panther team — junior center Alex Sobel is joined by one sophomore and three freshmen in the starting lineup. Brown agreed that getting off to a fast start in what was the first playoff outing for four of his players was important for his young team’s confidence.
“Obviously the game flowed back and forth. Bowdoin to their credit continued to compete,” Brown said. “But having a little cushion is just really helpful with our group because we have so many guys, where it’s a new experience being on the court in the NESCAC tournament.”
Sobel set the tone defensively with two of his seven blocked shots in the first 70 seconds. At the other end sophomore guard Noah Osher hit two jumpers, freshman point guard Jaden Bobbett drove into the lane for a hoop, and Sobel scored in the post and also stole the ball at the top of the key and dunked at the other end to make it 10-4.
The inside work of Sobel and freshman forward David Brennan also quickly got both Polar Bear post players, Xander Werkman and Jack Shea, in foul trouble, and the Panther lead kept growing. An Osher putback and a Bobbett steal and layup made it 18-7, and with his team struggling at both ends Bowdoin Coach Alex Joyce called time at 12:13.
That tactic didn’t help, but a switch to a zone with his team trailing 22-10 at 10:40 slowed the Panthers for a few minutes. At 4:16 Brown called for time with the Panthers still in the lead at 28-19.
During that timeout Brown said he reminded the Panthers of the basics — just to “share the ball and get some high-quality shots.”
Sobel in particular took the message to heart, scoring once in the post and hitting two jumpers from just inside the foul line as the Panthers responded with a 14-3 run that pushed the lead to 42-22. Brennan added a short jumper from the same spot, and Osher and Nash Goldman off the bench capped the surge with threes.
Only Afamdi Achufusi’s 30-foot banked three pointer at the buzzer limited the Middlebury lead to 17 at the half.
Bowdoin twice cut the lead to 11 in the second half, but the Panthers had the answers. With 8:02 remaining Bowdoin’s Manav Randhawa was fouled while hitting a three-pointer and added the free throw to make it 65-54, but four points from Osher pushed the lead back to 15.
The Polar Bears countered with a 5-1 run to make it 70-59, with a Shea three-point play inside and a Michael Simonds layup doing the damage.
But Panther freshman guard Sam Stevens singlehandedly outscored the Polar Bears by 8-3 over the next 1:33 to end their final threat. Stevens sank two free throws, a pull-up jumper, and a three that forced a Bowdoin timeout at 4:49 with the score 77-59.
“We do have some experience playing with leads, and we’ve been pretty successful holding onto leads,” Brown said.
Brown said when it mattered the Panthers got contributions from up and down the lineup at one point or another.
“I love the balance of it. David Brennan was just shy of double figures, but the other four starters were in double digits,” Brown said. “I think that’s been the strength of this team, the group playing together for the lion’s share of the game and sharing the ball.”
Osher finished with 22 points. Sobel contributed 20 points and 14 rebounds to go with his seven blocks. Jaden Bobbett scored 15, Stevens added 12, and Brennan chipped in eight points, nine boards, five assists and three steals.
Tagai Kagitomi led Bowdoin with 14 points, while James McGowan and Achufusi each had 11.
PANTHERS VS WILLIAMS
Williams defeated the Panthers, 78-53, in Williamstown this season, and Brown acknowledged the Ephs will be a “huge challenge” in Saturday’s NESCAC semifinal.
But then again, the young Panthers have exceeded expectations all winter.
“It’s a team game, and the chemistry of this group is really special. They’re just really close,” Brown said. “I couldn’t be more pleased. And I’ve never had a team with so little experience coming back. And from that standpoint it’s really been exciting to see the development of this group …
“It’s an excellent mix, and we’re just excited to continue to play.”
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