SALEM, Va. — On Friday, the Middlebury men’s basketball team ended its record-breaking season with a 59-57 loss to #8 St. Thomas (29-3) in an NCAA semifinal contest played at Salem Civic Center in Salem, Virginia.
The second-ranked Panthers end their season with a record of 28-2, the most wins in school history. The Panther seniors end their four-year careers with a school-best mark of 96-18.
The Tommies went on to challenge Wooster, a 73-71 come-from-behind winner over Williams, in the NCAA Championship game. In a Saturday afternoon game, St. Thomas took the title 78-54.
During Friday’s game, Middlebury jumped out to a 7-2 lead behind a hoop and pair of blocks from Ryan Sharry. St. Thomas came back to tie the game at 11-11 on a three from Tyler Nicolai at the 13:10 mark of the first half, and the teams went neck-and-neck until the final 2:33 of the first half, when the Tommies outscored Middlebury 10-2 to take a 32-25 lead into the break.
Middlebury shot just .333 from the floor in the first half, missing all nine three-point field goal attempts. St. Thomas shot .419, knocking down 4-7 threes. The Panthers held a slight edge on the boards (22-20), turning the ball over eight times compared to the Tommies’ six turnovers.
Middlebury scored the first three hoops of the second half, cutting the Tommies’ lead to 32-31. St. Thomas responded with a 9-0 spurt behind four from Tommy Hannon to take a game-high eight-point lead at 40-32 with 16:39 left in the second half. The Panthers, in an 18-3 charge over an 8:00 span, took a 50-43 lead with 8:19 remaining. Threes from Jake Wolfin and Nolan Thompson and four points from Jamal Davis sparked the run.
A dunk from Andrew Locke with 5:40 to go made it a 52-45 game, but St. Thomas began chipping away, taking a 53-52 lead with 2:51 left after Wolfin fouled out. The Tommies kept coming, taking advantage of a pair of Middlebury turnovers to go up 55-52 at the 2:15 mark. Joey Kizel hit a big bucket driving to hit right, before St. Thomas answered to regain a five-point lead at 59-54 with 1:15 left. Nolan Thompson hit a huge three to bring Middlebury within two with less than a minute to play, before a Davis steal gave the Panthers the ball with 16 seconds left.
Following a timeout, Middlebury looked to get the ball inside to Sharry but couldn’t, forcing an off-balance three from Thompson that just missed with seconds remaining.
St. Thomas shot .457 from the floor, the first to shoot over .400 against the Panthers in 12 games. Middlebury shot .550 in the second half, finishing the game at .420. The team made just 3 of 16 (.188) from three-point range, and struggled from the line, going 12 of 23 (.522), while turning the ball over 18 times. Middlebury was big on the boards, holding a 37-28 advantage.
Thompson finished with 12, while Sharry earned his 15th double-double of the season with 11 points and 11 boards. Davis scored eight, while Locke had eight points, six boards and four blocks.
Tyler Nicolai scored 15 to pace St. Thomas, Tommy Hannon added 11, while Brady Ervin scored 10.
Said Panther head coach Jeff Brown after the game: “They (St. Thomas) cranked up defensively and I have to give St. Thomas credit. It’s my feeling they are the best defensive team we have played all year. They were good at really making us feel uncomfortable.”