Jeffs down Ephs in NESCAC Tourney 69-62

They say that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat their mistakes.

Men’s basketball (21-5) was defeated by the Lord Jeffs of Amherst by a final score of 69-62, Saturday afternoon in the semifinals of the NESCAC tournament. The loss marks the second consecutive season that the Ephs have been eliminated from the competition by their archrivals.

The Lord Jeffs (20-6) won the NESCAC title the next day, overcoming top-seeded Trinity 85-78 and earning the conference’s automatic berth into the NCAA tournament.

With the loss to Amherst, the second on the year for the Ephs, the season had appeared to come to a close for Williams, who had fallen behind both the Lord Jeffs and Trinity (18-5) in the queue for a national bid. Fortunately, both the Ephs and the Bantams had acquitted themselves well enough this season to merit an at-large (Pool C) selection, and regional seeds high enough to earn a first-round home game.

Williams will host first-time NCAA competitor Cazenovia College (N.Y.) in that match-up this Thursday evening in Chandler Gymnasium at 7 p.m. The Ephs have appeared in the NCAA tournament seven times since the NESCAC decision to allow post-season play, the most appearances of any school in the conference, with their most recent appearance occurring in 1999.

In earning two of the eight Pool C bids offered nationally, the NESCAC will send three teams to the tournament, bouncing ranked teams such as Capital (23-5) and Franklin & Marshall (22-5) from the NCAA field. Williams was certainly aided in their cause by the fact that twelve teams on the latest d3hoops.com top-25 list won their conferences, thus conferring automatic berths upon those squads and clearing a path for the Ephs.

A better result against Amherst, however, might have made such political wrangling a moot point. In crushing the Lord Jeffs 74-45 on Jan. 18 on their home floor, the Williams defense was successful in containing Amherst stars John Donovan and Pat Fitzsimons, holding the duo to a combined 13 points. Saturday, those two players managed to more than double their haul, collectively tallying 33 points and 18 rebounds while going 12-for-18 from the floor.

Similarly, the offensive prowess that had served Williams so well in the teams’ previous meeting failed to materialize, as the Ephs shot an uncharacteristically low 36 percent from the floor. When compared to the 47 percent managed by Williams in the decisive second half of the earlier victory, the Williams effort appears inadequate – indeed, that malaise on the offensive end would prove to negate the solid defense and rebounding that usually powers the Williams machine.

Neither side, however, was particularly sharp right out of the gate. Sloppy play all around during the early going made the first half a tight affair, featuring some 19 turnovers for Williams that set the tone for what would prove to be an error-prone game for the Ephs. The score was only 14-13 in favor of the Lord Jeffs with 9:42 elapsed in the contest, with the two teams far too familiar with one another to allow for any surprises.

A pair of free throws from forward Ben Coffin ’04 sparked a 7-2 Ephs run at that point, the score moving to 20-16 in favor of Williams. Soon thereafter, the Ephs’ co-captain and post presence Drew DeMuth ’03 picked up his second personal foul on the offensive end, sending him to the bench and the team into a tailspin from which they would never recover. With DeMuth out of the game, Fitzsimmons turned the relatively open lane into his personal playground, scoring 11 of the final 18 Amherst points of the first half, including six directly from offensive rebounds. The rest of the Lord Jeff lineup was similarly hot, as Amherst shot 15-of-30 from the floor in the opening period, establishing a 34-28 halftime advantage.

Williams came back quickly after the intermission, following up a jumper from Amherst’s Steve Zieja by scoring five unanswered points, closing the gap to 36-33. Unfortunately, the Lord Jeffs’ reply was quick and forceful – Amherst went on a 13-4 run, sparked by a four-point play from John Donovan. The two-guard, who finished with 17 points on five-of-nine shooting, made a tough three-point shot while being fouled by Williams forward and co-captain Tim Folan ’03, sending the traveling Amherst contingent into hysterics when Donovan capped the effort with a free throw.

The Ephs, however, were hardly finished – trademark Williams defense over the next 8:32 limited the Lord Jeffs to a single basket, while the Ephs pumped in 14 points of their own in closing the deficit to 52-51. Zieja’s floating shot broke the ice for nervous Amherst, but point guard Mike Crotty ’04 was cooler than the other side of the pillow, nailing a trifecta from the top of the key, and knotting the score at 54.

Ryan Faulkner would tally the next two baskets for Amherst – both off dribble penetration – while Crotty only managed to go three-of-four from the free throw line, leaving the score at 58-57 with 1:43 remaining. Another Amherst basket pushed the lead back to three, but a missed long-range attempt from Michael Graham ’05 on the ensuing Williams possession marked the last Eph opportunity to tie.

Amherst went 11-of-14 from the charity stripe down the stretch, and never needed another field goal, as Williams was continually forced to foul while only managing three points during the next 1:38. Crotty, who finished with 14 points and five assists on the afternoon, sank two free throws with the game out of reach, but it was not nearly enough for the Ephs, who have not won the season series with Amherst since the ’96-’97 campaign.

DeMuth led the Ephs with 15 points and 10 boards, while Graham added nine points in 21 minutes of action for the first-year. The big disappointment on the afternoon was Folan, who was only three-of-12 from the floor, and failed to record a three-pointer in finishing with six points. Adam Harper added 13 points in 39 minutes for the Lord Jeffs, while NESCAC Player of the Week Zieja – who would go on to score 32 in the championship game – chipped in 14.

Head Coach Dave Paulsen is no stranger to the Cazenovia squad the Ephs will face Tuesday night – Paulsen lived in Cazenovia, New York during his spell as head coach of nearby LeMoyne College. As such, he is grateful for the chance he and his team have to redeem themselves. “Everyone on the team is thrilled to get the NCAA bid, because they know they did not play well Saturday and they want to correct that,” Paulsen said.

Paulsen has a great deal of respect for the Wildcats, who play in the North Eastern Athletic Conference, and will boast a considerable size advantage over the Ephs: “I know they split with Union which is a tournament team, they beat Tufts on a neutral court and they beat a good Clarkson team and if you get past the NCAA selection committee’s 11-step criteria you deserve to be in this tournament,” Paulsen said.

The winner of Thursday’s contest will travel to face the University of Rochester this Saturday, with the game scheduled for 7 p.m. The Yellowjackets (21-4) also received a Pool C bid, with their higher ranking ensuring them a home contest.