Men’s hoops wins 20 for a 10th straight year

Though they’d lost control of their own post-season destinies, men’s basketball did all that it could on its own behalf this week.

Williams defeated Middlebury 88-63 on Saturday afternoon, clinching its tenth consecutive season with 20 or more wins, and giving it the opportunity to top the NESCAC if other events fell into place.

To the dismay of the Ephs, other events were not inclined to be charitable – Trinity blew out Bowdoin 82-57 to finish at 8-1 in the NESCAC and seal the top seed for the postseason tournament, the second straight season they have enjoyed that honor. At 7-2, Williams is seeded second in the field, ensuring them a home match-up with seventh-seeded Tufts.

Even with these circumstances hanging overhead, the Ephs were able to avoid a lapse of concentration against a Middlebury squad desperate to make the NESCAC tournament. A concerted effort from the Williams starting five, who came one point away from all finishing with double-digit scoring, saw the chances of an upset vanish like smoke and eliminated the Panthers from postseason consideration.

Williams was led by the double-double of co-captain Drew DeMuth ’03, whose 12 points and 14 rebounds were reflective of hard work on both ends of the court. Frontcourt-mate Ben Coffin ’04 recorded impressive numbers as well – the 6’7” forward shot six-of-eight from the floor, finishing with 16 points and seven boards, in only 23 minutes.

Early on, it was not size that slew the opposition, but rather the red-hot outside shooting of Mike Crotty ’04 and Chuck Abba ’04. The starting guards both sank three-pointers in the opening minutes, allowing the Ephs to run off an 11-0 lead 5:15 into the contest. That advantage was stretched to 20-4, at which point Middlebury converted their first field goal of the game, with 9:12 remaining in the opening period.

The defensive advantage Williams had enjoyed up until that point in the contest evaporated, however, when the rangy Coffin picked up his third personal foul, forcing him to the bench early in a manner that has occurred all too often this season. Taking advantage of this lapse was Middlebury forward Eric Budonis – the burly junior led his squad on a 30-18 run to close out the half, closing the gap to 38-34 at the break.

Back in the game to begin the second period, Coffin went on a tear, recording all of his points and rebounds in the 20-9 Williams run with which the team opened the half. During this run, the Middlebury defense, which came out of the locker room running a full-court press, was particularly abused, with the vision and guile of Crotty allowing the Ephs to break for several easy buckets.

While Middlebury threatened to rally on occasion, confident play down the stretch iced the victory for the Ephs. The efforts of Tim Folan ’03 were particularly notable; the co-captain hit several of his outside shots during this run, en route to a 15 point, eight rebound day. With Folan’s intensity mirrored by DeMuth, Williams was never again troubled.

First-year Irish sensation Simon Behan led the Panthers with 15 points in only 15 minutes of action, including a pair of three-pointers that closed the gap to nine for Middlebury with 12:34 remaining in the contest. Budonis, whose 30 minutes of playing time was tops for the Panthers, finished with 13 points on 4-of-10 shooting. Middlebury was grossly out-rebounded by Williams on the night, managing only 26 boards to the Ephs’ 43.

Crotty tallied 13 points and seven assists for Williams, on the strength of three-of-seven shooting from behind the arc. His three long-range efforts were matched by Folan and reserve guard Michael Graham ’05, whose nine points came on perfect marksmanship from outside. While the first-year has seen his playing time increase over the course of the season, his four personal fouls in only ten minutes has to be a concern for the coaches.

In general, head coach Dave Paulsen was quite pleased with the afternoon’s efforts. “Twenty wins is the standard we set for ourselves as a program,” Paulsen said. “This school – and this team in particular – is about excellence and reaching that mark again shows how we have been able to sustain that excellence for many years.”

For the NESCAC tournament, Williams sits in second position, with a quarter-final match-up against the Jumbos of Tufts set for Tuesday evening at 8 p.m. in Chandler Gym – fans who intend to watch the game should be advised that there will be a one dollar entry fee for students with proper school identification, while for non-students there will be a three dollar charge. Of the other contests in the first round, one pits number three Conn. College – 89-84 victors against Tufts this past Saturday – against number six Wesleyan, whom the Ephs defeated 71-66 two weeks ago, and 65-57 more than a month ago on the Cardinals’ home floor. The other game involves number five Bowdoin traveling to number four Amherst.

The semi-finals and finals are to be staged at the home of the top seed Trinity, who will enjoy a semi-final match-up against the lowest remaining seed. The balance clearly favors the hosts, a turn of events not lost on the team. “We won’t have as wide a margin of error in the tournament,” Paulsen said, “so we can’t have stretches of bad basketball and still be successful.”