MIDDLEBURY — As it has for the past four years, the Middlebury College men’s basketball team continues to scale unprecedented heights.
This past weekend’s sweep of two home NESCAC games — on Friday with a dramatic rally vs. Wesleyan and on Saturday with a dominant effort against Connecticut College — moved Coach Jeff Brown’s Panthers to a program-record 15-0.
Middlebury (4-0 NESCAC) is also ranked No. 5 in the d3hoops.com NCAA Division III poll, another high-water mark.
When senior center Andrew Locke was a freshman role player, the Panthers made a major breakthrough, earning their first NCAA tournament berth. The past two years they have hosted NCAA regionals, but their NCAA record is just 1-3.
After Saturday’s 80-52 win over Connecticut, Locke recalled that the captains during his first season — Andrew Harris and Mike Walsh — drew up a blueprint for success.
Locke — who sparked the Panthers on Saturday with 19 points, 18 rebounds, seven blocked shots, and a half-dozen dunks — said the Panthers have followed those captain’s formula ever since, even when all-Conference players like Tim Edwards and all-American players like Ben Rudin graduated.
“They made a business plan, almost, of how to start winning. And through them it’s almost become a tradition. So we’re used to it. Everyone on the squad now, starting with my year, is used to winning games,” Locke said. “And that kind of tradition doesn’t graduate. We know inside we can win these ballgames.”
Locke said the Panthers have also been motivated in the offseason to put in the effort individually to keep improving their own games, and thus the team’s prospects.
“The internal drive is so important. To win games in March, you have to be working your butt off in April, the whole summer through the fall,” Locke said. “And all of our guys do that ... We know where we want to be, and we understand what it’s going to take to get there.”
Brown said the Panthers’ confidence and their depth showed up when they were down 15 in the second half at Tufts on Jan. 14 and won by 13, and again on Friday, when Wesleyan led by 11 with 8:57 to go and Middlebury won by eight. In that game, senior forward Jamal Davis came in to supply key defense on Cardinal standout guard Shasha Brown on pick-and-roll plays.
“There’s just a lot of confidence with this group that if we hit some stretches where we struggle a little bit, we can find a way to fight through it and really perform,” Coach Brown said. “And ... we don’t rely on one individual player to get it done every single night, and different guys have had big scoring nights and helped us in other ways.”
In Saturday’s game, the Panthers led, 15-10 midway through the first half, before Shasha Brown (26 points, a game high) sparked an 11-2 Wesleyan run with eight points. The Cardinals (1-3, 8-9) led at the break, 29-28, and later used five points from Derick Beresford in a 7-0 run that made it 52-41 at 8:57.
The Panthers then closed with a 23-4 surge. Middlebury took the lead on a Ryan Sharry three-pointer that followed a Davis hoop after a steal. Sharry (22 points and 16 rebounds) scored seven in the closing stretch. Overall, senior forward Ryan Wholey added 11 points and seven boards, while sophomore guard Jake Wolfin scored eight with four assists.
On Saturday, the Panthers never trailed vs. Connecticut (0-4, 8-10). They took a 10-2 lead on hoops by Locke, a three-point play by sophomore guard Nolan Thompson, and two by Sharry, the second of which also became a three-point play. Wolfin (eight assists) set up the Locke hoop and Sharry’s second bucket with a behind-the-back pass on the break.
Connecticut cut the lead to three a couple times in the half, thanks largely to seven-for-nine shooting from the floor and 16 points from its bench. Wholey (15 points in the half) and freshman Joey Kizel (four assists) kept the Panthers on top, and Kizel beat the buzzer with a trey to put the Panthers up at the break, 44-32.
In the second half, Locke, Wolfin and the Panther defense quickly dashed any Camel hopes for a rally. Middlebury held the Camels to 24 percent shooting from the floor in the second half after allowing them to shoot about 43 percent in the first half.
After Sharry opened the half with a trey, the Panthers got their next 10 points from Locke down low, four on dishes from a driving Wolfin, two on dunks, and one on a putback of his own miss. That surge gave the Panthers a 57-37 lead and pretty much ended suspense, except when Locke would next dunk or swat a Camels shot away.
“Andrew Locke really came up huge,” Brown said. “His stat line was incredible. And he was really the force we’re hoping he’ll provide for us more consistently down the home stretch.”
Locke said he had not been playing up to his own expectations.
“I’ve been in kind of a slump in the last three games,” Locke said. “So it felt really good to kind of come out in the second half and start feeling it again.”
By the time the dust settled, Brown had played all 17 players on his roster, and 12 had scored. Wholey finished with 17, Sharry had 10 with seven boards, Wolfin had six to go with his eight assists, Luis Alvarez scored six, and Winslow Hicks was two-for-two and finished with five. The Panthers shot 50 percent from the floor.
Stiffer challenges lie ahead. After hosting Southern Vermont on Thursday, the Panthers play at No. 6 Williams (17-1, 4-0 NESCAC)_on Saturday. A tough road trip to Bowdoin and Colby follows the next weekend, and No. 9 Amherst (16-0, 3-0), the only team to defeat Williams, is lurking.
Brown said the Panthers are looking forward to those games.
“We’re certainly in a good position confidence-wise and chemistry-wise with this group,” he said.
Locke said the Panthers are using their NCAA losses in the past three seasons as motivation.
“That’s in our minds, a little chip in our shoulders, to just show everyone we can win in the postseason,” he said. “We’re not looking too far ahead, because any team, any day can upset us. But Williams, Amherst, moving into NCAA play if we can make it, that’s also there in our head. We want to beat those teams.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at email@example.com.