MIDDLEBURY — When the Williams College men’s basketball team visited Middlebury on Jan. 28 and came within a point of upsetting the Panthers, the Ephs shot 53 percent and scored 79 points.
But in Saturday’s NESCAC quarterfinal against those same Ephs, the No. 7 seed, the No. 2 Panthers were ready: They held Williams to 34.3 percent shooting — four of 29 from three-point range — to win, 73-61.
Junior guard Nolan Thompson said the 23-2 Panthers spent the week studying film of the first match-up. In that game, Williams repeatedly ran high screens to create easy layups, many for Eph center Michael Mayer, while forward Taylor Epley lit them up from outside the arc.
This time the Panthers were better-positioned, said Thompson, who helped hold Eph All-American James Wang to five points while chipping in nine points and three assists of his own.
“We had a week to prepare for this game, so a lot more this time than last time we went over ball screens and being in help-side (position),” he said. “This time we knew where we were supposed to be.”
Senior forward Ryan Sharry (22 points, seven rebounds and four blocks) also took it on himself to guard Epley more carefully.
“Last time Epley really killed us. I really focused on that the whole week with the scouting report,” Sharry said. “For the team ... we just wanted to play them tough.”
After the game, Coach Jeff Brown noted that although the Panthers scored just seven points in the first nine minutes, they trailed by just three, 10-7.
“We really felt that we could defend them much more effectively than we did the first time,” Brown said. “Today we did a much better job defensively, and it really helped us in the first half when we were struggling to get our footing on the offensive end.”
That was the point of the game when Sharry first asserted himself, sparking a 12-0 Middlebury run over the next six minutes with seven straight points, two jumpers and a three-pointer. The Panthers never trailed again.
The Panthers finished the run on a trey by point guard Jake Wolfin (16 points, six rebounds, three assists) set up by Thompson, and two Thompson free throws at 5:13.
Guard Nate Robertson, who led the 17-8 Ephs with 19, broke an eight-minute Williams scoreless streak with a three-point play at 4:59. The Panthers twice led by 11 in the half, once on a Wolfin trey and once on two free throws by forward Peter Lynch (six points, six boards) with three seconds to go in the half. But Epley beat the halftime buzzer with a long trey and it was 32-24 at the break.
Williams finally was able to attack the basket to open the second half and cut the lead to 35-32 in the first four minutes.
But Sharry outscored the Ephs, 10-5, in the next 3:30 to make it 47-39. The points included a free throw, a baseline drive for a three-point play, a move in the post, two more free throws, and a putback.
“He’s our guy,” Thompson said. “Good things happen when we give him the ball.”
The Ephs made one more run: Mayer (14 points, seven rebounds) scored four points inside, and it was 47-43 at 11:00. But forward James Jensen (four points and four boards in a solid effort off the bench) converted an offensive board. Shortly afterward, Sharry blocked a shot and fed Wolfin for a fast-break hoop that made it 51-43 at 7:38 as the Middlebury students chanted Sharry’s name and the sold-out gym got even louder.
Williams got to within six points three times, the last time at 6:15 on an Epley drive. But Joey Kizel (14 points, five rebounds, three assists) sank two free throws at 6:01, the first of the Panthers’ 18-for-20 performance from the line down the stretch.
Another key contributor for the Panthers was reserve center Jack Roberts, who helped anchor the interior defense and blocked five shots.
“Jack Roberts gave us a great boost off the bench,” Brown said.
In all, Middlebury blocked 12 shots as the Panthers protected the basket well. The Panthers have not defended at the same level this year as the past couple, when they led the nation in field-goal percentage against and blocked shots, but Thompson said Saturday was a step in the right direction with the NESCAC final four looming this weekend at Amherst and the NCAA Division III tournament to follow.
“Defense wins games. That’s been our motto the whole time,” Thompson said. “We want to be starting the playoffs playing our best games offensively and defensively. So having a great show defensively tonight was really good for us.”
Sharry also pointed to the ballhandling and free-throw shooting at the end of the game as critical elements for tournament success, starting with Saturday’s NESCAC semifinal vs. Wesleyan and Sunday’s hoped-for rematch with No. 1 seed Amherst.
“We know we have a great team. And we have a couple losses, but we can only benefit from that. We’ve seen what it takes to win,” he said. “The execution today was much better than it was in those couple losses, so we’re ready.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].