By ANDY KIRKALDY
MIDDLEBURY — The red-hot Middlebury College men’s basketball team opened its NESCAC schedule at home this past weekend with two more wins, bringing their streak to 10 games and their record to 14-2.
But the two league victories for Coach Jeff Brown’s Panthers couldn’t have looked much more different on the court.
On Friday, the Panthers needed a career-high 28 points from senior point guard Ben Rudin and a final-minute, game-tying three-pointer from senior guard Kyle Dudley in order to pull out a 73-65 overtime win over Bates.
On Saturday, the Panthers held visiting Tufts to two points in a 10-minute first-half span and erupted on offense in a 108-64 win.
Rudin, who set another career high on Saturday with 14 assists, acknowledged after the Tufts game that the Panthers had the opening game “NESCAC jitters” on Friday, and then showed their true form, what he called “Middlebury basketball,” on Saturday.
“We had to play through a lot of adversity last game,” he said. “NESCAC ball is a whole different season. So yesterday we got our feet wet and got right back into NESCAC, and today ... it was important for us to come out and play the way we normally do, and this is the result.”
At the same time, the Panthers are at the point in the program’s history where they can win games when they are not at their best. Rudin, a four-year starter who is five assists short of the school’s career record, said this is the most confident Middlebury team in his tenure, even more so than the group that set two program firsts last year: winning a home NESCAC playoff game and earning a berth in the NCAA Division III tournament.
Not only are the Panthers winning close games, but they have earned their record despite missing three-year senior starting post player Aaron Smith for most of the first semester — they are undefeated with him in the lineup.
“In NESCAC basketball in particular, every team is going to go through adversity,” Rudin said. “Those teams that prevail and fight through that adversity are the teams that are the championship-caliber teams, and we’ve been doing that all year from day one.”
On Friday the Panthers trailed, 55-52, in the final minute. Sophomore forward Ryan Sharry rebounded a Rudin miss and found Dudley in the corner for the game-tying trey.
The Panthers then dominated OT, outscoring the Bobcats, 18-10, hitting 10 of 12 free throws and getting big hoops from 6-10 sophomore center and sophomore forward Jamal Davis, whose transition dunk at 0:37 made it 70-63.
The Panthers overcame an 18-for-31 performance from the free throw line to defeat Bates, which ended the weekend at 8-7 after a 15-point loss at Williams. Locke scored 13 with six rebounds and four blocks, while Sharry netted nine points with nine boards, and Davis scored eight.
Tufts came in on Saturday after a 96-59 loss at Williams on Friday, but the Jumbos played the Panthers tough for the first five minutes, after which the score was 12-12.
But by the time talented Jumbo forward John Pierce (23 points, 6 rebounds) stepped to the free throw line at 4:52, his team trailed, 37-14.
The Panther defense forced eight Jumbo turnovers in the first 8:35, converting many into baskets at the other end. Davis, and Rudin each converted on the break in that 25-2 run, and Rudin twice threw long to sophomore forward Ryan Wholey for transition hoops, one a three-point play.
Wholey (14 points) and Dudley (14 points, 4 for 7 from behind the arc) each sank treys in the decisive spurt, and Sharry (a team-high 15 on 7-for-10 shooting) came off the bench to hit twice in the paint.
Despite the offensive explosion, Coach Brown noted that it started with defense.
“We really made a statement on the defensive end early in the game, and from that we were able to get our transition game going and get a lot of easy baskets throughout the course of the game,” Brown said.
Tufts closed the half on an 8-2 run to make it 46-26, but the Panthers put the hammer down to open the second half with a 10-3 run that featured treys by Dudley and senior swingman Tim Edwards. The rest of the game was played solely for entertainment purposes.
Among the highlights:
• Locke stuffed the ball home on an inbounds play from Rudin.
• Dudley hit treys on consecutive trips to make it 72-37.
• Wholey tossed in a high-arching layup on the break on a feed from Rudin.
• Sophomore Ashton Coghlan went 3-for-3, including a trey and a three-point play on the break.
• Sharry stole the ball, somehow eluded a defender at the foul line, and scored the final Panther points on a dunk.
• 13 Panthers scored, 10 at least six points (senior guard Matt Westman and freshman guard Winslow Hicks, as well as others mentioned already.)
That last point is notable, Brown said, as is the fact that the Panther starters — Dudley, Edwards, Locke, Rudin and Smith — were actually outscored by the bench, 60-48.
“I feel like we have a lot of guys that are capable of really having a strong game,” Brown said.
Like most coaches, Brown is reluctant to make predictions, but he is clearly happy with his Panthers
“The league is a little unpredictable,” he said. “But I certainly like our chemistry, how we share the ball on offense and how we compete on the defensive end.”