Men’s hoops still perfect with win in NESCAC opener

A question – if you’re a team that relies on long-range shooting to win, and your shots just aren’t falling, what can come off the bench to spark your team to victory?

Nothing but Bhat.

6’7’’ reserve center Sumant Bhat ’03 provided a jump start for the ailing Ephs offense Saturday afternoon, scoring 10 points and recording seven rebounds to help lead men’s basketball (13-0; 1-0 in the NESCAC) over Middlebury 90-67.

Tough inside play by the entire cadre of forwards powered Williams to victory on a day where little went right from outside. Ben Coffin ’04 led all scorers with 19 points and dominated the glass with 14 rebounds, while co-captain Drew DeMuth ’03 contributed 11 apiece in points and boards.

“It was a great team effort in the paint,” said Bhat, the fan favorite whose visage was most recently spotted adorning homemade convention-style signs for the Williams-Amherst clash. “We weren’t hitting much from the outside, but our big guys stepped it up. Drew and Ben had huge games.”

The Ephs, currently ranked sixth in the nation, remained undefeated with the victory, pushing their season record to 13-0 and opening their NESCAC campaign with a forceful message. It was also the conference opener for Middlebury, who stands at 9-4 after the loss.

The Panthers’ undersized front line certainly never backed down from the unenviable task of taking on Coffin and company.

While giving up several inches to their Williams counterparts, forwards Eric Bundonis and Nate Anderson scored 17 and 16, respectively, and contributed the bulk of their squad’s rebounding.

The monkey wrench for Middlebury, however, was Bhat, whose five field-goals and presence on the blocks diverted attention from the dangerous DeMuth. With the focus now on Bhat, DeMuth and Coffin were able to establish far better position inside than they would have otherwise. Going big also decreased the maneuverability of the Panther defense, allowing guards Mike Crotty ’04 and Chuck Abba ’04 to get to the line 18 times in the contest.

The two guards combined to take nine 3-pointers on the afternoon and failed to sink a single one. Even on an unlucky streak, though, the Eph backcourt mates far outplayed the opposition, putting up respectable numbers while severely limiting the effectiveness of their counterparts.

Crotty finished with 15 points and seven assists, while Abba notched 18 on 5-of-13 shooting – in contrast, the starting backcourt trio for Middlebury shot 6-of-19 for the game and turned the ball over seven times.

“We struggled all day from the perimeter,” Head Coach Dave Paulsen said. “But we were very strong inside, and our defense at the end of the game was outstanding.”

For most of the contest, few would have expected Middlebury to make a run late in the game.

The Ephs held a comfortable 38-26 lead at halftime, an appropriate margin following a period in which the Panthers shot 27 percent from the floor and 45 percent from the free-throw line.

After Williams pushed that advantage to 14 after the intermission, the game looked to be well in hand.

Middlebury stormed back, however, with big buckets from Bundonis and Mike Salek thrice drawing the Panthers to within three points of Williams.

On each occasion, they were forced back from the gates, and as the Ephs cracked down on D late in the game, Middlebury fell apart. The Vermont squad managed only 13 points over the last dozen minutes, and allowed Williams to close out the contest on a 17-0 run.

The Ephs dominated on the glass, out-rebounding the opposition 57-40. Such smaller details prompted optimism for Paulsen amidst some struggles. “It’s a good win on the road, even if we didn’t play our best,” he said.

The shooting woes that plagued the Ephs against Middlebury were also present for the first half of their Tuesday evening contest against Hamilton. On this occasion, Williams managed to rediscover its touch for the second period, shooting 56 percent from the floor after intermission in dominating the Continentals, 74-54.

Only a five point cushion was earned by the Ephs in the opening 20 minutes, a half in which the absence of Tucker Kain ’05 due to injury was keenly felt. The score was knotted at 20 at the 5:30 mark, after which Williams’ mini-run of nine points was partially spoiled by lax defense that allowed Hamilton to keep it close.

There was no such tomfoolery after the break, however – the Ephs ran their lead to 46-30 right out of the blocks, completely dominating the opening five minutes of play. Big stuffs from Bhat and a clutch 3-pointer from Abba highlighted the 17-6 run. Hamilton was never able to close the gap to fewer than eight, and Williams finished strong with a 12-6 blast that confirmed the final 20-point margin of victory.

Bhat’s five blocks and six rebounds in 22 minutes were a key to the Eph victory, as were Crotty’s 11 points and 10 assists. Coffin pitched in with 18 points on 9-of-12 shooting, while DeMuth and Abba both kicked in 16. Four of Abba’s buckets came from long-range, and he matched that total in steals.

Joe Finley missed four of his five foul shots, but still pumped in a game-high 23 points and 10 boards for the Continentals, playing nearly 36 minutes in defeat. Joe Smith was the second-leading scorer with 10.