MIDDLEBURY — On Saturday night in Pepin Gymnasium, the Middlebury College men’s basketball team shrugged off an early deficit and defeated Albertus Magnus, 89-73, to win the NCAA Division III Regional Final.
About 12 hours later, the 26-3 Panthers got more good news: They will host an NCAA Sectional this Friday and Saturday, with game times to be announced on Monday.
On Friday, Middlebury, ranked No. 4 in the most recent d3hoops.com poll, will meet unranked Scranton (22-7), while No. 5 Cabrini (28-1) faces No. 21 Eastern Connecticut State (24-5). The winners will meet Saturday.
The sectional winner advances to the D-III Final Four in Salem, Va., on March 16 and 17. The Panthers will be looking to make their second-straight and second-ever trip to the semifinal round after losing a late lead in a 2011 semifinal to eventual winner St. Thomas.
But before they could think of possible sectional sites, the Panthers first had to win their home regional. On Friday, they dismissed Morrisville State, 75-49.
After a slow first half, which challenged the Panthers to adjust to the rare sight of an opposing zone, they led by just 29-23. Then, in the second half, they heated up, taking charge with a 20-5 run. The surge began with Middlebury holding a 41-35 lead at 15:09, and ended with the home team up, 61-40, 6:31 later.
Nolan Thompson sank a pair of three-pointers and scored 10 of his game-high 19 points in the surge, while Joey Kizel and Jake Wolfin each knocked down threes.
Morrisville (19-9) sagged in the paint around Middlebury’s senior forward and player of the year candidate Ryan Sharry, holding him to nine points; he did haul down a game-high 12 rebounds. Wolfin contributed 14 points and six assists, Kizel had 11 points and five assists, and forward Peter Lynch scored 10 points on five of six shooting.
In Friday’s other game, Albertus Magnus improved to 28-1 by holding off St. Joseph’s of Long Island, 87-84. St. Joseph’s finished at 21-5. Forward Ray Askew and guard Darius Watkins scored 28 apiece to lead the Falcons, and rugged center Jefferson Lora added 10 points and nine rebounds.
And on Saturday, Lora (11 points) muscled inside for four quick points and Askew sank a three-pointer to give the Falcons a quick 7-0 lead over the Panthers, momentarily quieting Pepin, which was sold out for the third straight game.
But from that point on the Panthers were the better team. They hit 54 percent of their shots, largely thanks to good ball movement evidenced by 20 assists, seven from Wolfin and six from Kizel. They also held Magnus, which came in scoring 87 points, to 14 points below their average and just 26 in the first half.
“It was just an awesome performance,” said Middlebury coach Jeff Brown. “We were very efficient on the offensive end, and we defended very well a very talented offensive team.”
The Panthers had to mix and match defenders on Askew, who scored 26 on eight-for-22 shooting from the floor but drew a number of fouls. Lynch and fellow forwards James Jensen and Jack Roberts all took turns. Meanwhile, Thompson limited Watkins to 11, eight below his average.
“We rotated a bunch of guys on Askew,” Brown said, adding, “Nolan Thompson is our lock-down defensive player, and he always gets the assignment of the top perimeter player.”
The Panthers answered the early Magnus lead with a 9-0 run capped with a dunk from Sharry set up by Jensen’s offensive board. Four points from Askew gave Magnus its last lead at 11-9, but the Falcons stayed close at 21-20 at 6:25 when Askew answered several hoops by Lynch with four straight points.
Then the Panthers took charge with a 13-2 run. Forward Dylan Sinnickson hit three of four free throws. Sharry converted a Kizel feed, Thompson hit a jumper, and after two Askew free throws at 4:44, Sinnickson contributed a putback.
Then Sharry took a Kizel pass and dunked in traffic at the four-minute mark, a play that brought the house down. Sharry hit in the post at 2:35 to make it 34-22, and soon Middlebury settled for a 38-26 halftime lead.
In the second half, the Panthers stretched their lead, which hit 20 for the first time at 10:30, after the Falcons started pressing to try to get back in the game. A Wolfin jumper assisted by Sharry on the break made it 63-43, and 26 seconds later Wolfin fed Sharry for a reverse layup to make it 65-43. The Falcons came no closer than 15 the rest of the way.
The Panthers’ ball movement created balanced scoring: Sharry finished with 21, plus 15 rebounds to key the Panthers’ 44-36 edge on the boards. Thompson and Lynch both finished with 14 points, while Kizel and Jensen added 11 each.
Now the Panthers will play again in front of 1,200 in Pepin Gym, most of whom will be noisy supporters. A year ago, the Panthers were the highest seed in their sectional, but were sent to Rochester because of NCAA travel rules.
“Last year I had to lie to people and say I really wanted to go to Rochester,” Brown said. “The student body has been tremendous, coming out and really fueling our guys ... and really making this a great, great basketball atmosphere.”
Sharry said the Panthers are looking forward to the weekend.
“We played a difficult schedule the whole way through, and we think we can beat anyone,” he said. “So we’re excited and we’re ready to play another day.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].