Men’s hoop bested in NCAA regional

PANTHER FORWARD ALEX Sobel, shown in a game earlier this season, was named the D-III national player of the year. Independent photo/Steve James

MIDDLEBURY — The dance came to an end on Saturday night for the Middlebury College men’s basketball team, when a relentless Nichols College used its quickness to shrug off an early Panther surge and prevail, 73-66, on the Panthers’ home court in an NCAA Division III regional final. 

Middlebury (20-6) took a 15-4 lead over Nichols (25-5) in the first 12:55 and still led by 18-8 when NESCAC Player of the Year — and NESCAC Defensive Player of the Year — Alex Sobel picked up his second foul at 10:17 of the first half. 

The complexion of the game changed. The Bisons had seen Sobel, a 6’-8” forward, and Panther Sam Stevens block and change shots at the rim up to that point, but their drives began to turn into points. 

Nichols closed the half with a 25-12 surge, with 16 of those points scored at the basket, and three more the result of fouls. When Jakigh Dottin beat the horn with a drive, the Bisons led, 31-30.

MIDDLEBURY SENIOR GUARD Jaden Bobbett looks to make a play during the Panthers’ first-round NCAA D-III home victory on Friday. Nichols topped the Panthers on Saturday in the regional final.
Independent photo/Steve James

There were a couple factors. Nichols had rallied from down by 20 in Pepin Gymnasium the day before to prevail, 74-71, vs. Rochester. And as Bison forward Matthew Alectus said in the postgame press conference, his team is “one of the best second-half teams in the nation.” The deficit didn’t faze the Bisons. 

And Middlebury Coach Jeff Brown said Sobel having to sit out most of 10 key first-half minutes made a difference. His three blocks on Saturday gave him 100 for the season.

“They really found their stride getting to the basket without Alex at the rim. They did a terrific job of really beating us off the dribble,” Brown said.

The Panthers weren’t done, however. A Jaden Bobbett three and a Sobel post move helped them take a 36-35 lead early in the second half. 

But Nichols countered with drives by Nathaniel Duckworth and Ty Rucker, a short jumper from Quincy Ferebee and an Alectus three-pointer, and the Bisons were up by 44-35 at 15:11. They led the rest of the way, twice by 13 at 55-42 and 57-44. 

The Panthers fought back, as Sobel (16 boards) and sophomore David Brennan (14) combined for 30 rebounds, and Sobel did his best to take over the game offensively — he powered inside for 19 of Middlebury’s final 24 points. 

MIDDLEBURY GUARD SAM Stevens gets around a defender during the Panther men’s hoop team’s first-round NCAA Division III win on Friday. Nichols knocked off Middlebury in Saturday’s regional final.
Independent photo/Steve James

With about seven minutes to go and the score 61-52, the Panthers switched to a zone defense to slow down the Bisons’ forays to the rim, and it proved effective. 

Sobel scored twice to cut the lead to five, and after Duckworth beat the shot clock with a three — a huge hoop at 5:00 — Sobel hit two free throws and a transition hoop to make it 64-60 at 2:55. 

Bison Tavon Jones and Sobel traded two free throws each, and it was still a four-point game at 2:11. The Panthers then missed a three, and in the final 1:44 the Bisons sank seven of 12 free throws to ice the victory.

Ferebee (20 points), Dottin (18 points, a team-high eight boards) and Alectus (16 points and five boards) did most of the damage for the Bisons. 

PANTHER GUARD NOAH Osher fires from long range in Middlebury’s first-round NCAA D-III win on Friday. Osher hit four threes in the victory, but the Panthers lost at home in the regional final the next day.
Independent photo/Steve James

Nichols Coach Brock Erickson, whose team dropped a 91-80 home game to the Panthers back on Nov. 19, praised both teams. 

“Any time you can come into a place like Middlebury with such a rich tradition and come out with a win, it’s just a credit to how tough our players are and how hard they worked,” Erickson said. “I couldn’t say enough about Middlebury. They’re a tough group. We played them early in the year. Their coach is a great coach. He’s been here for a long time, and all he does is win.”

 Sobel, a senior, finished with 29 points. Stevens (10 points, two blocks), Noah Osher and Edward Witherington each scored eight, and Brennan added six points and a team-high four assists to his rebound total. 

On Friday, the Panthers rode a huge second half to defeat Worcester State in their first-round game; see story on this page. 

Brown had kind words for his team in the press conference after Saturday’s setback, saying he has been “blessed to coach this group of student-athletes,” as well as talking about the result.

PANTHER FORWARD DAVID Brennan attacks the basket during Middlebury’s first-round home NCAA victory on Friday. Brennan was a force on the boards in Friday’s win and Saturday’s setback.
Independent photo/Steve James

“The game was certainly hard-fought and competitive over the 40 minutes, and it was a game of runs. And especially in the second half they were able to get a little distance on us,” he said. “But our guys, there’s no quit with them, being down 10 with four minutes to go, they just kept plugging away.”

Brown was flanked by Brennan and Sobel as he spoke. He called Brennan “one of the greatest competitors I’ve ever coached,” and then addressed Sobel.

“And it’s been a privilege to coach Alex in his time here,” he said. “The gentleman to my left is the best I’ve coached, the way he can impact games on so many levels.”

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