Men’s basketball tears up NESCAC foes

The Williams College men’s basketball squad has won its last five games, defeating such NESCAC rivals as Colby, Trinity and Amherst. In winning nine of their last 10 games, the Ephs (16-3) have positioned themselves for a possible NCAA tournament bid. As of Feb. 9, Williams was ranked sixth in the NCAA Northeast poll. But with road victories over Northeast number two Colby and Bowdoin, Williams should rise in the region’s rankings.

Williams’ five-game winning streak started with a big win Feb. 4 over rival Amherst, 62-59. The Lord Jeffs had defeated Williams earlier in the season 72-54 at Amherst. Chandler Gym was electric when Amherst, one of the pre-season favorites in the conference, traveled to the Purple Valley to take on the Ephs. The scene was unparalleled-a crowd nearly bursting at the seams and two evenly matched teams fighting for more than just NESCAC and Little Three standings.

Amherst quickly jumped out to a seven-point lead, 23-16, halfway through the first half. However, the Ephs tied the score at 23 in the succeeding minutes. The Jeffs retook the lead – this time a six-point advantage with three minutes left in the half. But Williams was not to be denied. Forward Joe Weiss ’01 nailed two three-pointers in the final minute of the half to lock the score at 29-29. The last twenty minutes of the struggle would decide the 173rd meeting between Amherst and Williams.

The second half saw 13 ties and 11 lead changes before a victor emerged from the melee. Neither team was able to pull away from the other. Ten minutes through the half, the Jeffs held a three-point lead. The game was tied at 56 going into the final three minutes of play. With slightly more than two minutes on the clock, Andrew Conley ’01 hit two free throws to put Williams up for good 58-56. Amherst failed to score on its next possession.

The Ephmen had a chance to put the Jeffs away, but they could not make their shots go down. However, the Ephs got many second chances from offensive rebounds, and eventually co-captain Jim Sheehy ’00 went to the line with 36 seconds left. The point-guard made his first shot and missed his second, but Weiss got the rebound to keep possession. Weiss then hit one of two attempts. Amherst took possession and missed its opportunity to cut into the Eph lead.

Forced to foul, the Jeffs put Conley on the line. He made his first shot, but missed his second and it was rebounded by the Jeffs. Jeff guard Brian Daoust then connected on a running three-pointer to cut the Eph lead to just two points with five seconds to go.

Sheehy took the inbound pass and was fouled. Sheehy made his first shot, but again, the second was off the mark. Daoust took possession of the ball with the final seconds ticking away and shot a second prayer. However, this time it fell short, and the Ephs rushed onto the court in jubilation. Williams snapped Amherst’s three-game streak over the Ephs, 62-59.

Weiss was the leading scorer in the game with 18 points. Conley scored 14, including three baskets from downtown. Center Manny Benjamin ’01 was huge on the boards, pulling down a game-high 14 rebounds.

Building on the Amherst victory, Williams won a string of games over tough conference opponents. Just hours after the Amherst victory, the Bantams of Trinity were at Chandler to take on the Ephs. Williams emerged from its second battle in two days with a 68-58 win.

Both teams struggled out of the gate: Williams shot 31 percent from the field and Trinity hit only 28 percent of its attempts. Williams took the lead late in the first half on a Conley three-pointer. At the half, the Ephs held a slight lead, 26-24.

Trinity took the lead early in the half, only to relinquish it to the Ephs. This time, Williams took it back for good. Trinity fell into foul trouble, giving Williams easy points at the line. Improved Eph shooting-44 percent from the field in the second half-led the way in the victory.

Weiss exploded for 22 points and eight rebounds in the second half, finishing with 30 points and 10 rebounds on the day. Conley ended with 22 points. Benjamin continued to dominate the paint with a game-high 13 rebounds and nine points.

The following Tuesday evening, Williams hosted Springfield College. Williams led 25-17 in a low-scoring first half. Williams appeared to be pulling away in the second half, leading 45-38 with three minutes to play. However, the Pride came back with two baskets to cut the lead to 45-42. Conley made a lay-up, only to be answered by a Pride jumper.

The fight intensified until it hit its height when Springfield drained a three-pointer to cut the lead to 50-49. Weiss nailed his two succeeding foul shots. With eight seconds to go, Sean Keenan ’00 stripped the ball from the Pride guard at half-court. Sheehy took possession of the ball to preserve the 52-49 victory.

The trio of Weiss, Conley and Benjamin once again led the Ephs. Weiss scored 16, Conley 15 and Benjamin 14 rebounds. Co-captain Jim Sheehy had four assists and turned the ball over only twice in 39 minutes.

This past weekend, the basketball squad traveled to Maine to take on conference opponents Colby and Bowdoin. Colby was ranked #2 in NCAA Northeast Region. Williams was able to upset Colby at its house, 59-48. Williams led at the half, 23-18. Williams shot just 24% from the field. As has been typical during the past string of games, the Ephs have come out slowly, winning their contests in the second half. The Ephs overcame their shooting slump by hitting on 50% of their baskets in the final twenty minutes. Offensive rebounds were a big key in the victory. Williams held a 16-to-8 advantage on the offensive boards. The offensive boards translated into 17 second-chance points for the Ephs.

Williams finished the contest with three players: Benjamin, Conley and Weiss all earning double-doubles. Benjamin led game in both scoring and rebounding with 19 and 15. Conley scored 15 and rebounded 10. Weiss scored 14 and rebounded 11.

At Bowdoin, Williams played another close one, barely defeating the Polar Bears 55-49. The Ephs held the lead 29-21 at the half. The second half, however, would prove a shooting nightmare. With 8:02 remaining, Weiss nailed a three-pointer to stretch the lead to 43-30. It was Williams’ fourth, and last, field goal of the second half. Williams shot a strong 48 percent from the field in the first half, but the Ephs managed only 21 percent in the second to finish the game at 36 percent.

Williams led 50-37 with 3:20 left, but Bowdoin ripped a 12-2 run to close the gap. In the final minute, clutch free throw shooting and a timely Benjamin offensive rebound saved the day. Weiss led the Ephs in scoring with 14 points. Benjamin scored 13 and tallied nine rebounds. Dickens also had 13 points.

The Ephs host their final four games of the season. The next contest will be on Tuesday night again Union. After that, Williams takes on three NESCAC foes – Tufts, Bates and Middlebury. The contest with Tufts (ranked third in the Northeast) may decide who goes to the big dance. The seniors’ final home game will be on February 22 against Middlebury.

As Williams has only one loss in NESCAC play, the team is still in the running with Conn College, which also has one loss, for the bid. However, since Conn defeated the Ephs earlier in the year, Conn holds the first tie-breaker and would have to lose another game and the Ephs would have to win out to get the NESCAC automatic bid. If the Ephmen don’t get the conference bid, they could possibly earn one of the six at-large bids awarded nationally.

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