Men’s basketball earns automatic berth in NCAAs

The Williams men’s basketball squad, well acquainted with playing for its own destiny, was forced to sit down, wait and hope. The fate of the Ephs’ postseason aspirations fell in the hands of Connecticut College and Amherst. In a brilliant and ironic twist, the Lord Jeffs’ victory over Conn handed Williams (20-3, 8-1) its first ever NESCAC basketball championship and the automatic NCAA tourney bid that comes with a conference title.

At the beginning of previous week, Conn and Williams were tied for first place in NESCAC standings. However, by way of their 70-61 victory over the Ephs earlier in the season, Conn College had the inside track on the NESCAC championship and an automatic bid in the tourney. Williams had a game remaining; Conn had two games.

On Tuesday evening, Middlebury traveled down Route 7 to tussle with the Ephs in Chandler Gymnasium. Seniors Sean Keenan, Bebo Seward and Jim Sheehy were recognized for playing their final regular season home game at Chandler. The Ephs took care of its business, handily defeating Middlebury 74-54 to guarantee a share of the title.

Action in the game unraveled slowly, with just seven points scored in the first seven minutes of play. The tempo picked up when Keenan hit a 3-pointer to give Williams an 8-2 lead. The Ephs’ offensive game began to come alive as the team began to control the tempo from the twelve minute mark. Middlebury fought back, holding its deficit at 10 through the rest of the half. Williams finally ended the half with a 31-20 advantage over the Panthers. At the half, Keenan and Joe Weiss ’01 led all scorers with eight points each. Manny Benjamin ’01 grabbed nine rebounds while Middlebury’s Keith Watts had seven points.

Both squads shot poorly in the low scoring first half. Williams shot 28 percent from the field while the Panthers were shooting at a 27 percent clip at the half.

In the second, both teams shot markedly better, but Williams was able to extend its lead in this one and put the game out of reach for the Panthers. Williams nailed 56 percent of its shots in the second half and Middlebury improved to 41 percent from the field.

Through the second half, it was quite evident that Williams was just a better team as the Ephs took control of this game and ensured that the final outcome was never in doubt. In a season of several down-to-the-wire, blood-boiling contests, Williams comfortably cruised to a 74-54 victory in this one, in part due to its 51-32 advantage on boards.

Weiss led all scorers with 24 points and 11 rebounds. Benjamin contributed 19 points and pulled down 21 rebounds, with Andrew Conley ’01 scoring 13 points and grabbing seven boards. Keenan scored 11 while Sheehy led the Ephs with seven assists in their regular season home finales. For Middlebury, Watts finished the night with 13 points. Craig Breen scored 10. Chad Malone led the Panthers in rebounds with seven.

Williams finished the season on a nine-game winning streak, beginning with the emotional victory over Amherst. The win allowed the Ephs to complete the season undefeated at home.

Having done their part, the Ephs had to await the results of Conn’s games over the week. The Camels pulled out a tough win over Wesleyan on Tuesday 88-82. The conference championship would come down to Conn’s Saturday night game against Amherst. If they could defeat the heavily favored Camels convincingly, the Lord Jeffs at 16-5 (6-2 in NESCAC) would have an outside chance of landing in the tourney. The Lord Jeffs came through in this one, defeating Conn 95-79 and stealing the at-large bid from the Camels’ grasp.

Williams was given the first seed in the Northeast bracket. The first and second seeds have byes for the first round. Amherst was placed as the third seed, making it possible for Williams and Amherst to meet for the third time in the Sweet Sixteen on Mar. 11.

Williams’ first tournament match will be this Saturday, March 4 against the winner between Eastern Connecticut State University and Springfield. Earlier in the season, Williams defeated Springfield 52-49 in Chandler in a competitive game.

On Monday, the NESCAC postseason awards were made public. Eph head coach Harry Sheehy, who led Williams to its eight consecutive 20 win season, was named coach of the year.

Weiss was named to the First-Team All-NESCAC squad. Center Benjamin was named Third-Team All-NESCAC. Point guard and co-captain Sheehy was named to the NESCAC All-Defensive Team.