The stage was set. With Chandler Gymnasium brimming over with emotion, men’s basketball satisfied its fans in the best way possible: it beat Amherst down the stretch.
A key tip-in by Drew DeMuth ’03 and clutch free-throw shooting from Mike Crotty ’04 was sufficient to quell a late surge by the Lord Jeffs in Saturday night’s contest, powering the Ephs to a 74-65 victory.
Career-highs of 25 points from Adam Harper and 17 from Andrew Schiel contributed to the furious late run by Amherst, who had trailed by as many as 15 in the second period.
The gap was only two points with more than 3:00 remaining, however, when the home team put the clamps on and allowed the Jeffs only one bucket over the last 2:26.
It was only the third victory over their Little Three rival in the last 11 attempts for the Ephs (11-0), who in remaining undefeated are likely to improve in this week’s D3hoops.com National Poll, where they were previously ranked seventh. Eighth-ranked Amherst (9-2) fell for the second time in three games after opening up the season 8-0.
National or conference rankings mean little, however, when it comes to the historical significance and weight these match-ups inevitably carry. Despite being only the first of a guaranteed two or possible three-game season series, the Ephs remained fully cognizant of the import of the victory for their supporters.
“This win is not just for us,” said Crotty, who recorded a team-high 18 points to go along with seven rebounds and five assists. “It’s for the school, for the alumni, for everyone involved.”
Both DeMuth, whose redirection of an errant Chuck Abba ’04 3-pointer broke the Ephs out of a scoring slump late in the contest, and Ben Coffin ’04, played magnificent games in the paint, taking advantage of the absence of Amherst center Pat Fitzsimmons. DeMuth finished with 17 points on 7-for-11 shooting, while the rangy Coffin put in 16, adding 13 boards and a pair of blocks.
“To score and rebound as he did and then to play defense and work so hard was great,” said Head Coach Dave Paulsen of Coffin. “He was a monster.”
Even with the inside game clicking, opportunities on the perimeter were few and far between for Williams’ shooters, who were up against a tenacious defense that often had a hand right in their faces. Nonetheless, as the game wore on, opportunities began popping up, and when they did, the Eph backcourt of Crotty and Abba made few mistakes, combining to hit seven long-range efforts.
“When we move the ball well, it opens things up inside,” Paulsen said. “And when teams become so conscious about our inside game, it frees up space for guys like Mike and Chuck.”
The Amherst sophomore forward Schiel nailed three 3-pointers of his own, the only Lord Jeff to show consistency from outside. Senior Steve Zieja chipped in 16 points on 8-of-11 shooting to go with five rebounds, but was largely ineffective after the intermission.
Early in the contest, the second half might have seemed irrelevant in any case, as Williams absolutely came storming out of the gate with a 13-4 run.
Coffin and DeMuth were fed the ball consistently, and looked dominant against the younger Schiel and the overmatched Tim Jones, starting in place of Fitzsimmons. The Ephs kept the pressure up for much of the first 20 minutes, as only three Amherst players were able to get on the board, and the Ephs shot 63 percent from the floor in running out to an 8-point halftime advantage.
Yet the Lord Jeffs were not willing to roll over, even after several minutes of back-and-forth play saw star Zieja forced to the bench with three fouls. Harper and Russell Lee stepped up the defensive pressure fivefold, resulting in a number of transition buckets and free-throw opportunities in succession.
Indeed, the Jeffs stayed calm throughout the comeback, sinking all 11 of their opportunities from the charity stripe.
Williams’ lead was still 10 with less than five minutes on the clock, but a quick spurt trimmed that advantage to only a pair by the 3:34 mark. That run was capped by a three-point play from Harper, who converted a floater in the lane and the subsequent foul shot after a long outlet pass from Lee.
On that occasion the sophomore guard came up big in grabbing the ball from DeMuth and threading the ball to Harper, but the Jeff’s missed 3-pointer at the 2:00 mark may have been the last real opportunity for an Amherst victory.
The next possession saw DeMuth’s tip-in, and after a Harper miss on the opposite end, free throws by Crotty and Tim Folan ’03 were sufficient to seal the deal for the Ephs.
Williams out-rebounded the Lord Jeffs 38-24 on the night, including 14 off the offensive glass. Amherst was only 1-of-12 from 3-point range in the second half.