After battling through the first half and most of the second half of the NCAA tourney second-round contest between Williams (20-4) and Springfield College (21-8), it appeared as though the Williams men’s basketball team would be continuing on to the Sweet Sixteen. Center Manny Benjamin ’01 hit a jumper with 4:33 left on the clock to give Williams a 69-63 advantage over the Pride.
Unfortunately for the Purple faithful, Springfield forward Michael Parker was having a career night.
For the second time in the game, Parker led his squad back from a deficit. Springfield went on an 11-0 run after Benjamin’s jumper. Co-captain Sean Keenan ’00 finally broke the scoring slump with a 20-foot jumper, but only 10 seconds were left in the game. Springfield made its free throws in the closing seconds, and though Tim Folan ’03 banked in a three-pointer with 1.8 seconds remaining to close to within one, it was too little, too late. For the first time all season, Williams lost a home contest, falling to Springfield 75-74. Parker finished with a career-high 30 points.
The backbone of Williams basketball all season has been an active, smothering defense. Coming into the contest, Williams was ranked fourth in the nation in both field goal percentage defense and scoring defense. On Saturday night, however, Springfield was successful in breaking through the Ephs pressure. The Pride found many open shots throughout the game, especially in the second half, accounting for its 48 percent shooting from the field. Co-captain Jim Sheehy ’00 summed up the Ephs’ failure to hold down the fort.
“Defensively, we just did not get the job done,” Jim Sheehy said. “They consistently beat us in transition and were able to get easy looks at the basket. Transition defense and denying penetration are two principles that we emphasized in our game plan.”
Williams basketball this season was not founded on the strong athleticism of past teams. Head coach Harry Sheehy stated quite emphatically that “Springfield was a more athletic team. This was not an upset.”
This year’s version of the Ephs played a scrappy, gritty style of basketball all season long. The team had dodged several near losses, partially due to solid clutch play, partially due to opponents buckling under the pressure. On the other hand, the Ephs had found ways to pull out close contests throughout the year.
For coach Sheehy, the loss at the hands of Springfield can be credited to “a lack of ability to get into transition defense and poor free throw shooting.” The coach also emphasized the foul trouble Benjamin fell into early in the contest. Throughout the year, Benjamin was able to dominate the boards against NESCAC opponents. Against Springfield, Benjamin played just 21 minutes, collecting only nine rebounds – two under his season average.
On the free throw line, Williams shot 7-for-15 for night. Eph free throw shooting, though never a strong suit for the team, always came through in the clutch. In the final five minutes of the contest, Joe Weiss ’01 and Keenan each missed a pair of free throws to help the Pride’s comeback.
First-team All-NESCAC forward Weiss finished as the high scorer for Williams with 16 points. Sixth-man Dan Dickens ’01 played admirably, scoring 12 points on 6-of-9 shooting. Guard Andrew Conley ’01 and Keenan each finished the night with 11 points. Jim Sheehy played his heart out as always, ending his Williams career with a spectacular 13 assists and three steals.
In the final minute of the first half, first-year Tim Folan exploded for six points to shift the momentum of the game back in favor of the hometown Ephs.
With just three seconds remaining, Sheehy stripped the ball away from a Springfield guard. Folan gobbled the loose ball, raced down the court, made his layup and was fouled before the half expired. Folan sank his free throw, and his explosion gave Williams a 39-37 halftime lead.
Folan’s scoring outburst was quickly overshadowed by the work of Springfield’s Parker as the second half began. The Pride forward scored 20 points in the period and grabbed 11 rebounds.
Parker took his team on his shoulders and either shot or penetrated on nearly every possession down the stretch. In other words, Parker was “in the zone.” Williams had not seen a player of his caliber at the top of his game all season long.
Not to be overshadowed by Parker, Adetokunbo Adewuyi had 14 points and nine rebounds for the Pride. Lydell Capers also scored 14 for Springfield.
For its victory, Springfield goes on to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Division III Tournament to play Salem State. Salem State reached the round of 16 by knocking off Eph rival Amherst 81-75. NESCAC, considered by many to be the undisputed power conference in the Northeast, had its two tourney representatives, Williams and Amherst, eliminated in the round of 32.
Coach Sheehy said, “NESCAC is the strongest conference in New England. However, each game is its own world. Most forgot in 1998, we were the four seed in the region and went to the Final Four.”
When you figure what was expected from Williams basketball this season, the final results certainly speak volumes about the effort put forth by this year’s team. The Ephs went 7-1 in conference play, winning the first-ever NESCAC championship, and won 20 games for the eighth straight season.
Coach Sheehy stated, “We were probably not picked to finished in the top half of the conference. When you step back, the season looks like a success.”
The 1999-2000 season was supposed to be a year of transition. However, Sheehy and the rest of the basketball program showed to the rest of the New England that Williams never rebuilds. It reloads.
With a strong class of juniors returning, including Weiss, Benjamin, Conley and Dickens, and the excellent coaching of Sheehy, next year the Ephs seem poised to silence the doubters once again.