PANTHER MEN’S HOOP RIDES DEFENSE TO NCAA WIN
The Panther defense did not rest.
And that was a good thing, because the Middlebury men’s basketball team shot only 34.4 percent in the Panthers’ 64-57 win over Gordon at the now-customary loud, packed house at Pepin Gymnasium for a playoff game.
Junior center Andrew Locke swatted a ridiculous career-high 13 shots to justifiably earn the headlines, while senior guard Tim Edwards (just named this week for the second straight season as NESCAC defender of the year) harassed Gordon’s leading scorer, Aaron Trigg, into 3-for-15 shooting. In all, the 24-5 Fighting Scots (got to love that nickname) winners of 19 of 20 games coming in, shot just 31 percent.
Locke talked about defense after the Panthers improved to 25-3 and earned the right to face Rhode Island College at Pepin on Saturday night in the regional final.
“Defense has been our staple all year. Our guards know that we’ve got some big guys in the middle, and if they get beat, kind of let them come,” Locke said, adding, “Some days, for whatever reason, you don’t have your shots, and you have to find another way to win. And defense has always been there for us.”
Coach Jeff Brown said Locke’s blocks often trigger the offense. That’s what happened early in the second half. The Panthers had scored just five points (all by Edwards) in the final 8:20 of the first half and had seen a 27-14 lead dwindle to 32-29 at the half. It was 36-32 after two Ryan Sharry tip-ins, and then Locke blocked back-to-back shots, which led to a transition three for Nolan Thompson that brought the house down as the Panthers took a 39-32 lead. Thompson hit another three on the next trip, and it was a 10-point game with 16:20 to go.
“On offense we’re not pretty. We have stretches where we’re pretty efficient. But the defense has been consistent all year long and that’s why we have 25 wins,” Brown said.
Sharry hit a three to make it 52-36 at 12:10, but Middlebury went cold again, and sweet-shooting Gordon guard Brady Bajema (21 points) hit nine of the Scots’ points in an 11-3 run that made the game a bit too interesting down the stretch. But Jamal Davis and Locke blocked shots, and Thompson drove for two, and it was a 10-point game again at 4:21. Shortly afterward Locke swatted another shot and took a charge in the same sequence, and Gordon got no closer than five (57-52) when Trigg hit three free throws at 1:42.
The Middlebury defense answered again. After a Panther miss, Thompson stole the ball back and worked a give-and-go with Davis for a key hoop at 0:56 that made it 59-52. The Panthers then made enough free throws to put the game out of reach.
The stats: Edwards, 12 points, a team-high 11 boards; Thompson, a team-high 17 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists; Sharry, 14 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists; Jake Wolfin, 9 points, 7 rebounds; and Locke, 9 points, 4 rebounds, and the lucky number of blocks.
Rhode Island will bring team speed and athleticism on Saturday, but it’s worth noting they have lost to Middlebury’s NESCAC rivals Colby and Amherst.
Locke thinks the Panthers are ready: “They’re a different team than we’ve seen. They’re quick, they’re athletic. So it’s kind of going to be our size against their speed … We’ve just got to lock down, but our guard defense is great, so I’m not too worried.”
Of course, the elephant in the Pepin room was the Panthers’ heartbreaking first-round home loss a year ago, which followed a first-round road setback in 2008.
Locke also addressed that issue: “The game last year has been in all of our minds since it happened, for a whole year. We worked hard all summer, all fall, with that in the back of our head, like that won’t happen again. We felt a little bit of pressure. Maybe that’s why our shots weren’t falling. But we also knew there’s no way we lose again. We made it twice, and we want to go far this time.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at email@example.com.