SALEM, Va. — The Middlebury College men’s basketball team fell, 67-55, to North Central (Ill.) in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Division tournament on March 22, ending the program’s second-deepest advance into the postseason.
Middlebury made it to the Final Four in Salem two years, ago, but the 12-point quarterfinal loss marked Middlebury’s largest margin of defeat since the Panthers were ousted from the 2010 tournament by Rhode Island College, 75-59.
“I feel like we ran into a buzz saw of a team,” said Panther coach Jeff Brown. “They dominated us on the boards, we struggled to finish our shots, and it was a real challenge for us to cover them defensively, areas where we’ve been strong all season long.”
The Panthers often failed to finish good looks inside and sink open shots from the perimeter. A week after shooting better than 54 percent from beyond the arc in a 73-72 win over Ithaca, they made just four of 14 three-point attempts.
North Central coach Todd Raridon said he wanted his team to limit the Panthers good looks from behind the arc.
“We ran them off the three-point line,” Raridon said. “When you look at their stats [some of those guys] shoot 40-something percent from three. That’s something we had to have.”
Middlebury opened the game with easy baskets inside as senior forward Peter Lynch and junior center Jack Roberts combined to score the first 10 points of the game for the Panthers. Twice in the first half Middlebury opened a seven-point lead, as junior guard Joey Kizel scored eight of Middlebury’s 11 points over a span of 4:48 to spark a Panther run. At 9:08, Roberts took a feed from senior guard Jake Wolfin and gave Middlebury a 23-16 lead with his fourth basket in four attempts.
North Central responded with a 24-14 run over the final 8:41 of the first half. Cardinals guard Vince Kmiec provided the catalyst, pouring in 12 points over a 4:24 stretch. The junior guard gave his team its first lead since the Cardinals scored the first basket of the game when he drained a three with 4:39 remaining.
The Cardinals never trailed from that point on as Kmiec, who scored 17 points in the first half and 31 points overall made key shots to keep the Panthers at arm’s length.
“Kmiec had a tremendous game,” said Brown. “We were so concerned about (North Central All-American Derek) Raridon and (forward Landon) Gamble that maybe we lost some focus defensively.”
With 1:33 remaining in the first half, senior tri-captain Nolan Thompson sank a three pointer to tie the game at 36-36, but layups from Raridon and Gamble gave the Cardinals a 40-37 advantage at the break.
Kizel led Middlebury with 10-first-half points, but the Panthers’ inside scoring kept them in the game — Lynch, Roberts and junior forward James Jensen combined to score 23 of the team’s 37 first-half points.
Two jumpers from Thompson and an acrobatic reverse layup from Wolfin cut the North Central lead to one just over three minutes into the second half. But the Cardinals then orchestrated a 16-2 run to open a 60-45 lead with 11:12 remaining. Kmiec and company knocked down four treys during the run, while the Panthers missed 12 of their next 15 shots from the field.
Kizel engineered a brief 7-2 counterattack for the Panthers beginning at the 6:51 mark, finding a cutting Hunter Merryman for a layup off the high pick-and-roll. The surge ended at 3:53, when Kizel contorting his body through traffic for a twisting layup to reduce the deficit to eight.
But that was as close as the Panthers would come, as the furious rally to tie the game or retake the lead that Panther fans have come to expect never materialized.
“In a lot of our games, especially when we’ve been down eight to 10 points, we’ve been able to put together a three- or four-basket run to close the gap,” Brown said. “We were reaching and trying to get that, but never did because of North Central’s defensive intensity and focus.”
Middlebury made 35.5 percent of its shots while scoring just 28 points in the second half, including two of its nine three-point attempts. Kizel finished with a team-high 16 points, while Lynch add Roberts had 12 and 10. Lynch and Jensen pulled down seven boards apiece, Wolfin and Kizel each had four assists, and Wolfin stole the ball three times.
Gamble finished with 19 points and a game-high 10 rebounds to help his team earn a 39-30 edge on the boards. Raridon scored nine points, well below his average, with Thompson marking him.
A week after Thompson, Wolfin and Kizel combined to shoot 17-for-31 in the win over Ithaca, Middlebury’s backcourt trio converted 11 of their 33 shot attempts. The offensive struggles in the second half were team-wide, however, as the Panthers’ frontcourt of Lynch, Roberts and Jensen totaled just seven second-half points on two-for-eight shooting.
Middlebury’s loss marked the final games for Thompson, Wolfin and Lynch, who finished their careers as the winningest players in program history, compiling 104 wins and just 14 losses, including a NESCAC championship and a 15-7 postseason record.
Thompson finished his career with the ninth-most points in Middlebury history and will be remembered as one of the program’s best defensive players. Thompson was named the NESCAC Defensive Player of the Year and earned first-team All-NESCAC honors.
Wolfin, like Thompson a four-year starter, leaves as Middlebury’s all-time assist leader with 553.
Lynch developed into one of the NESCAC’s best big men and set a new program record with a career 60.2 shooting percentage, and averaged a team-best 14.9 points this winter.
“It has been a terrific class,” said Brown. “It has been a dream to coach them. The trio of seniors are really unselfish. I’ve probably never been involved with a team that throws the extra pass as much as this year’s team has.”