Men’s basketball downs Tufts and Bates, prepare for NESCAC tourney

Amherst men’s basketball (20-3, 8-1 in the NESCAC) clinched the top-seed in the NESCAC tournament by dispatching with Conn. College and Wesleyan, giving them home-court advantage throughout the tournament – a factor which could be important as they try to stave off an arguably more talented Eph team in next weekend’s tournament. Nationally, the sixth-ranked Ephs are listed higher than the 11th-ranked Jeffs, according to D3Hoops.com.

Though the two teams split their season series (with each team capturing a victory on their home court), Amherst won the top-seed as their victory came in the official NESCAC game held at Amherst on Jan. 25. The Ephs’ 74-65 home victory on Jan. 11 came in a non-conference game.

Home court advantage can be important in Div. III basketball. Indeed, both Amherst and Williams are currently undefeated on their own courts. The Ephs have not lost a game at home since 2001 when they dropped a game to the Jeffs.

Williams will take on a familiar Bates team this Saturday in the first round of the tournament. Last Friday night, the Ephs faced the same Bobcat team, emerging victorious, 76-55.

Williams came out hot in the game, jumping on top 7-0 and took a 23-point lead into the half. Drew DeMuth ’03 paced the Ephs with 14 points and 14 boards in only 22 minutes of action. Ben Coffin ’04, who has emerged this season as a commanding presence in the paint, contributed 13 points and seven boards from the other block. In all, the Ephs dominated the Bobcats down low, out-rebounding their opponent 52-38 and pulling in 20 offensive boards.

“We were ready to go,” said Mike Crotty ’04, who had 12 points and seven assists from the point. “We got a few easy buckets early and then it was off to the races from there.”

The dominance in the paint was welcomed as the Ephs normally deadly accuracy from downtown was absent on the night. The Ephs are shooting 41.3 percent from behind the three-point arc this season, but managed to hit only 5-of-25 treys against Bates.

C.J. Neely did the scoring for the Bobcats ending the night with 17 points on 7-of-17 shooting. Victor Rivera has 12 points, and nobody else was in double figures.

The next night, the Ephs faced a Tufts team that, despite an 11-11, record had beaten Amherst earlier this season. The Ephs didn’t play pretty, but Chuck Abba ’04 and Andrew Newton ’06 took over in the final ten minutes to put the game away for the Ephs.

Tufts had hung around for the first 30-plus minutes of the game and with just over eight minutes left, cut the Eph lead to five. Abba connected on consecutive threes and Newton hit a couple of baskets to give the Ephs all the room they would need.

“That run was key,” Head Coach Dave Paulsen said. “Chuck hit those two threes, and his defense frustrated [Tufts guard Mike] McGlynn.”

That may be the understatement of the week as the “sharp-shooting” McGlynn was positively stifled on the day. Entering the day averaging 18 points per game, McGlynn managed only one point against Abba and the Ephs on 0-for-12 shooting.

Abba was the top scorer on the day with 15 points. Crotty and DeMuth had 14 and 13, respectively. Leading the way for the Jumbos was Craig Coupe with 14 points and 12 boards.

Newton had a strong game with 10 points and seven boards coming off the bench. “We had some guys in foul trouble, so I had an opportunity to come off the bench and help out,” he said. “The older guys really push me at practice, so when I get the chance to come out here, I really try and bring that same intensity to the game.”

Before the game, the Ephs honored their four graduating seniors as their families in a pre-game ceremony held at center court. Sumant Bhat ’03, John Fitzgerald ’03, Tim Folan ’03 and DeMuth were all playing their final home regular season game.

It was not only the seniors’ day, however, as over just over 12 minutes into the game, Crotty got the ball to DeMuth for his 497th career assist. The point guard, who started his career by setting the single season assist mark and then shattered that mark in his second year, is now the school’s all-time leader for assists in a career.

“It’s pretty cool,” Crotty said. “When I played when I was little, I always enjoyed making passes. These guys have been knocking shots down for three years, and I couldn’t have done this without them.”

The Ephs will get a final warm-up before the NESCAC tournament tonight at 8 p.m. as they travel to Union College to take on the 13-9 Dutchmen.