By ANDY KIRKALDY
MIDDLEBURY — Despite the constant, high-decibel support of a standing-room-only crowd in Pepin Gymnasium, the Middlebury College men’s basketball team saw the finest season in program history come to a stunning end in Saturday’s second-round NCAA Division III tournament game.
The 24-4 Panthers led visiting Bridgewater (Mass.) State, 74-69, with 43.4 seconds to go. But the Bears got a critical steal and layup from Nicholas Motta and two three-pointers from Chace Garrick, the second with about 12 seconds left to erase a 76-74 Panther lead and propel Bridgewater to a 78-76 win.
The loss was the first of the season for the NESCAC champion Panthers in Pepin and only their second with their starting line-up intact: They fell twice early on when starting senior forward Aaron Smith was hurt.
Coach Jeff Brown said the Panthers believed they could do well in the tournament, but should not let Saturday’s upset detract from what they had accomplished: their first-ever NESCAC titles and a record for number of wins.
“I could not be more proud of this bunch of young men. They’re classy. They’re so unselfish, so hard-working,” Brown said. “And hopefully with a little bit of time some of the players will be a little less emotional about the ending of their season. It was really, truly a great run this season.”
The Panthers also missed a chance to ice the game from the free throw line, converting only 11 of 26 overall and three of four in the final minute.
But both Brown and Panther senior point guard Ben Rudin — who capped his outstanding career with 25 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds and 2 steals — said Garrick hitting the shots with hands in his face was the bigger story.
“We were in the driver’s seat. They made two great shots. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that,” Rudin said. “They were two very well-contested desperation shots. I mean, it doesn’t happen much. There’s nothing you can do about that.”
In the first half, the Panthers twice took nine-point leads. The first came on the third of senior guard Kyle Dudley’s four treys, which made it 28-19, and shortly afterward Rudin scored in the lane to make it 30-21.
But Bear center Roland Millien scored nine of his 23 points in the first half, and Garrick came in off the bench to score the Bears’ final nine points of the half, and the Panther lead was only four at the break, 42-38.
Millien then scored five in a 7-2 run to open the second half, and the Bears led, 45-44. The teams then repeatedly traded the lead. A Rudin hoop and back-to-back treys by Dudley and Tim Edwards (5 points, 6 rebounds, 2 blocks) put Middlebury on top, 52-45, but Millien and Judah Jackson each had four points in an 8-0 run that put the Bears back up, 53-52.
After seven more lead changes, a Rudin steal at 7:25 and a jumper at 5:20 put Middlebury up by 66-62. The lead could have been greater, but the Panthers missed four free throws in that stretch alone. The Bears closed to 66-65, but Millien fouled out trying to stop a Rudin hoop at 3:18, and the Bear’s Jackson fouled out trying to stop sophomore forward Jamal Davis’ layup at 2:33. Rudin missed his free throw, but Davis hit his, and it was 71-65.
Bear guard Corey Connor then hit a free throw and an off-balance trey for his only points of the game, after which Bridgewater called time at 1:44. Davis then crashed the boards and put back his own miss at 1:17 to make it 73-69. Edwards rebounded a Bear miss at the other end, but missed his free throws. Smith rebounded another Bear miss and gave the ball to Dudley, who hit one of two at 0:43.4.
Garrick (21 points) then sank the first of his two hotly contested threes at 0:36, after which Motta stole the inbounds pass and laid it in to tie the game at 74-74. The Panthers beat the press, and Davis attacked the basket for the go-ahead basket.
“Davis made a truly great athletic play in converting a tough layup down at the other end, and I was feeling good again,” Brown said.
But Garrick drew nothing but net from the top of the key with Edwards right on him. Brown opted not to call time, and waved Rudin to the attack. He spun into the lane for a fall-away jumper, but it hit the front of the rim.
For a second, it looked like freshman forward Ryan Sharry, crashing from the right side, would snare the rebound, but the ball — and the Panthers’ season — floated just over his fingertips to Motta, whose free throw at 0:01 created the final score.
Motta recorded 12 points and game highs of 11 boards and four steals. Millien and Garrick each added seven rebounds as the teams each hauled in 39.
In their final games, Smith had eight points and led Middlebury with eight rebounds, Dudley finished with 13 points, and guard Matt Westman picked up an assist in 10 minutes of action. Davis scored 11 with six boards, while sophomore center Andrew Locke had six rebounds and two blocked shots, and altered many other shot attempts.
Ultimately, asked to reflect on the season, Rudin said the Panthers will remember what was, not what might have been.
“It’s a special group of guys. That’s what we told them in there. Everyone just loves each other in there. Stuff happens, and you just witnessed it today,” Rudin said. “It’s a great group of guys. I love them, and it’s been the greatest time of my life playing with them.”