MIDDLEBURY — Playing Castleton State College’s men’s basketball team poses a unique challenge: The Spartans press for 40 minutes, constantly sub in fresh players, and relentlessly force the pace by launching shots as quickly as possible.
But on Tuesday, unique didn’t translate into difficult for the host Middlebury men, who improved to 15-0 and protected their No. 1 ranking in NCAA Division III by holding the Spartans to 34.6 percent shooting and pounding them inside to win, 97-71.
The Panthers did turn the ball over 21 times in the fast-paced game, but also racked up 21 assists on 33 baskets. Many of those hoops were easy inside looks when guards Jake Wolfin, Joey Kizel or Nolan Thompson broke the press or beat their defenders off the dribble in the halfcourt as the 7-7 Spartans extended their man-to-man pressure.
Wolfin, who recorded a game-high eight assists, said it was not fun to prepare to play that style, but setting up the Panther forwards was satisfying — Ryan Sharry hit 10 of 12 shots and scored a game-high 28, Dylan Sinnickson converted five of seven and scored 15, Peter Lynch sank four of five and scored 13, and James Jensen made three of five and added eight.
“It took a couple days of a lot of running in practice. That’s not a lot of fun,” Wolfin said. “But it’s fun getting guys easy layups and having Sharry dunk for the whole crowd and getting everybody going a little bit.”
Middlebury coach Jeff Brown said the Spartan press and extended defense meant the Panthers had to freelance more than usual, something they did well.
“We were not able to run the offense that we practice every day and our set plays,” Brown said. “So we really have to rely on natural basketball instincts, and our guys did a tremendous job.”
The other key against a Spartan team that averages more than 90 points a game was defense. Although the Spartans had some luck penetrating — notably Mark Comstock, a forward from Rutland (20 points) and guard Matt Cooney (10) — the Panthers held CSC to seven-of-28 from behind the arc.
“Really, it was putting forth the effort on defense to make some of the three-point looks a little more challenging,” Brown said. “We had a goal to hold them below 30 percent from the three-point line, and we held them to 25 percent.”
In the first half, the Panthers held the Spartans to eight points in the first seven minutes and took a 21-8 lead. Sharry scored the first eight points, two on Wolfin assists on the break, and Middlebury took the lead for good on a 13-0 run that snapped an 8-8 tie. Wolfin set up Jensen on the break to make it 10-8, Kizel (15 points) hit a jumper, Lynch converted a three-point play, and Sinnickson sank two hoops inside.
Castleton cut the advantage to nine three times later in the half, the latest at 38-29 on a Comstock drive. But the Panthers closed the half on an 11-5 run that included a Sharry putback, four free throws, a Wolfin three-point play and a Kizel drive, and it was 49-34 at the break.
Sharry opened the second half with the first seven Panther points, and the lead grew to 56-38. The Spartans came as close as 13 three times, the latest at 70-57 with 10:20 to go on a Comstock drive and a trey by Dammy Mustapha.
But the Panthers put the hammer down with an 11-2 run over the next 2:50 to take a 20-point lead. Thompson nailed a trey, Wolfin set up Jensen, Sharry hit two free throws, Jensen assisted Sinnickson, and then Kizel and Sinnickson combined for the play of the game.
Kizel tracked down a defensive rebound, but two Spartan defenders trapped him in a corner. Then Kizel spotted Sinnickson behind the defense at the other end, and he jumped and lofted a pass to his teammate at the other foul line. Sinnickson drove to the hoop, up-faked as a lone defender ran past, and dunked to make it 81-61.
The remaining time was moot, but did give Mount Abraham Union High School graduate Corey Kimball a chance to play a four-minute stint off the CSC bench and grab an offensive board, and give Sharry the opportunity to throw down a tomahawk dunk.
Sharry added 13 rebounds and four blocks. All the Panther starters had at least two assists, including Thompson’s four and Kizel’s three. Lynch added eight boards as the Panthers outrebounded the smaller Spartans, 49-31. Comstock hauled in eight boards to lead CSC.
A more important game for the Panthers was Saturday’s 65-62 victory at Wesleyan, which looks to be one of the top four NESCAC seeds this winter and has split two games with Amherst, the No. 4 team in D-III. Wesleyan defeated Amherst on Tuesday, 68-67, but the Cardinals’ earlier 64-62 loss at Amherst also will count in the league standings.
Wolfin said winning games like Saturday’s will help the Panthers toward their goal: a repeat trip to the D-III final four with a better outcome than 2011’s upset loss in the semifinal round.
“We want to be in Virginia in March again playing for that title that we let slip away last year. We work hard every day in practice,” Wolfin said. “I think we’re in a good spot now, but I think we’ve ... just got to keep working and hoping to be back in Salem in March.”
Brown would be surprised if that work isn’t done.
“The work ethic of this group is simply terrific. We have guys coming in and getting shots up with the assistant coaches and working on their game and really pushing each other, and the best part of everything is they really get along great. They love each other and they really play for each other, and you can see that in the way they share the basketball,” he said.
Brown also believes recent games like Tuesday’s track meet against CSC and Saturday’s grinder against Wesleyan show the Panthers have the versatility needed for a postseason run.
“It’s a team with great flexibility,” he said. “And that’s certainly important in postseason play, to be multi-dimensional, being able to play fast if a team speeds you up, and being able to grind it out in the halfcourt, which sometimes playoff basketball turns into.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at email@example.com.