By ANDY KIRKALDY
MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury College men’s basketball team is going to the dance, courtesy of Sunday’s 77-68 win over Amherst in the NESCAC final in the Panthers’ own Pepin Gymnasium.
Unlike last year, however, when the Panthers were 19-6 and earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Division III tournament, this time it might be more accurate to say the dance will come to them.
At 24-3 and with a ranking likely to improve from last week’s No. 14 after adding the NESCAC playoff title to their regular season championship, the Panthers will almost certainly host at least one NCAA game this time around.
Senior guard Ben Rudin (a game-high 18 points, plus 5 assists) said the Panthers are looking at the NCAA tournament differently this time.
“Last year, we deserved it. We had a great record, but it was an at-large bid. This year, we’re 14th in the nation, we’re looking to move up,” Rudin said. “This year we’re looking to do damage.”
But first the Panthers can savor a NESCAC title won in front of 1,200 raucous fans. Coach Jeff Brown’s top-seeded Panthers claimed that crown at the expense of 21-6 Amherst, which had won four of the previous nine NESCAC tournaments.
Brown smiled afterward in the TV lights that his program now attracts in addition to top student-athletes.
“It’s certainly an unbelievable feeling,” he said. “It’s a coach’s dream to have a full house in Pepin and to have a rowdy student section and bring home the gold, and our guys were just tremendous throughout.”
Brown also recalled the same seniors who accepted the NESCAC trophy together — Rudin, fellow guards Kyle Dudley and Matt Westman, and forward/center Aaron Smith — had a different experience four years ago.
“It’s really a tremendous group, and I have to commend our seniors, who in their first year here at Middlebury College won one league game and finished last in the league,” he said. “This transformation over the past four years to become champions is a great, great story.”
The ending of that story was in doubt late in Sunday’s game. Amherst started quickly, and led 18-9 at 14:27 of the first half, by which time Lord Jeff all-American forward Brian Baskauskas had already scored 11 points.
But the Panthers fought back to lead at the half, 42-37, with critical contributions from the bench. Sophomore forward Jamal Davis came in to guard Baskauskas, and spent much of the rest of the game shadowing him, along with Tim Edwards and Ryan Wholey; Baskauskas finished with 17 points.
Sophomore forward Ryan Sharry (15 points, 6 boards) also entered, and he and Rudin sparked a 15-5 run capped by a Wholey trey that put Middlebury up, 24-23. Buckets by Smith (11 points, 9 boards) and Dudley (7 points) and two blocked shots by Andrew Locke helped the Panthers grow the lead to 42-32 before Amherst tallied the final five points of the half.
The Panthers threatened to pull away early in the second half, when two treys by Tim Edwards, the second after three Panther offensive boards, helped the lead grow to 53-42 at 13:13. But Middlebury missed five free throws and several open looks in that stretch, and a chance to bury the Jeffs was lost.
And Amherst responded with a 15-3 run to take the lead, 57-56 at the nine-minute mark, on a putback by Jeff Holmes (11 points). Forward David Waller (14 points) and Connor Meehan (13 points, 7 assists) each had two hoops in the run.
The game went back and forth until the 4:11 mark, when Amherst tied it at 65-65 on two free throws.
Then the Panthers took charge. Smith hit in the post at 3:50, and Sharry rebounded a Jeff miss. Rudin drove and dished to Sharry for a foul-line jumper: 69-65 at 3:10. Sharry then stole the ball and was fouled, and he hit two free throws at 2:54: 71-65.
Smith rebounded a Jeff miss, and then came a sequence that typified the second half for the Panthers, who outrebounded the Jeffs, 46-33, including a 20-10 edge on the offensive glass. The Panthers missed, and Edwards (8 points, 4 boards) snuck in for the rebound. The Panthers missed again, but Sharry and Smith crashed, and they tipped the ball to Rudin in the lane. He sank an eight-foot jumper at 1:30, and the lead was a safe 73-65.
Brown noted both another strong defensive effort — the Panthers lead NCAA D-III in blocked shots and opponents shooting percentage — and the second-effort points.
“We really pounded the boards. We missed a few attempts, but we were able to get second and third attempts on the offensive end,” he said.
The Panthers then made four of six from the line to ice the win, and soon they were celebrating with their fans.
“To win the NESCAC championship is a great, great, thing,” Brown said. “And we’re excited about going to the NCAA tournament.”