Men’s hoops downs Amherst, on to Final Four

It was arguably the most important men’s basketball game Williams and Amherst have ever played, but this one was over well before Head Coach Dave Paulsen cut the last strand of the net down.

Men’s basketball (29-1) ran the visiting Lord Jeffs (24-5) off the court in the second half of Saturday night’s NCAA Div. III tournament sectional final earning themselves a trip to the Final Four. The final score, 91-75, remained on the scoreboard for half-an-hour after the game as fans, players and coaches mingled in celebration of the electrifying victory.

“I couldn’t be much happier,” Paulsen said. “It’s been a dream of mine to go to the Final Four, and beating Amherst to do so makes it that much sweeter.”

And the Final Four it will be as the Ephs prepare to load up for the trip down to Salem, Va. at the end of the week. The Ephs will play the College of Wooster on Friday in the National Semifinal. The Scots (29-2) are making their first-ever appearance in the NCAA tournament, after being ranked sixth in the nation in the final poll of this season.

After the Ephs’ Friday night game, national #24 Gustavus Adolphus (25-6) will take on home-state favorite Hampden-Sydney (28-2), which ended the season ranked fourth. Friday’s winners will face-off on Saturday for a national championship.

The Ephs and Jeffs traded baskets during the first half with each team leading the other by six points at one time in the half, but neither ever exceeded that margin. As the teams went in to the locker rooms after the first 20 minutes, the Ephs led by two, 36-34.

At the start of the second, the Eph guards went crazy as Jaris Cole ’05, Mike Crotty ’04 and Chuck Abba ’04 all hit their 3-pointers in the opening minutes of the half. The Ephs would remain on fire throughout the half – finishing the half 10-for-12 for a ridiculous 83.3 percent percentage from behind the 3-point arc. The Ephs made more threes on the night (14) than Amherst attempted (12).

“They did this to us before and God bless them,” Amherst Head Coach Dave Hixon said. “29-1 is pretty unbelievable.”

Five Ephs finished the night with double-digit figures in points. Crotty and Ben Coffin ’04 lead the way with 15. Abba (14), Tim Folan ’03 (13) and Cole (12) rounded out the top-scoring contingent for the Ephs.

Crotty had one of his best games of the season, showing tremendous poise at the point guard position. He finished the night with 13 assists and only one turnover. Also, after some initial struggles, he shut down Amherst point guard Ryan Faulkner, who has given the team trouble in past games.

“A great philosopher once said that nothing motivates like a rear end on the bench,” said Paulsen, who sat Crotty early on after Faulkner scored five quick points. “Faulkner has been a thorn in our side in the past, and I thought Michael did a much better job when he came back in the game.”

Perhaps most impressively, the Ephs completely shut down Amherst forward Steve Zieja. Zieja, this year’s NESCAC Player of the Year, finished the night with a paltry six points and only attempted four shots.

“I just tried to keep the ball out of his hands,” Coffin said. “That’s the easiest way to do it.”

The night before, it was the Tucker Kain ’05 show in Chandler. Kain, who has battled ankle injuries while at Williams, ignited the Ephs’ offense in the second half of their 76-65, Sweet 16 victory against Hamilton.

The Ephs had an 8-point advantage at the half, but Hamilton cut that margin to only one with 13 minutes left in the game. Kain stepped up, hitting a clutch three-pointer from the right corner, igniting the Ephs on a run.

“When we cut it to one, we felt pretty good about ourselves,” Hamilton point guard Greg Leone said. “But when [Kain] hit that three, it set us back a little bit. Williams is a great shooting team.”

Coffin led the way for the Ephs on the night with 19 points, missing a double-double by one board. Crotty and Kain each had 15 points.

An All-Sectional team from the weekend was announced after Saturday’s game with Coffin named as the Tournament MVP and Crotty also named to the team. Additional selections included Fitzsimons, Joe Finley from Hamilton and Seth Hauben from Rochester.

The Ephs national semifinal opponent, Wooster, earned their trip to the Final Four with a 68-64 victory over Ramapo College. Bryan Nelson was dominant with 27 points and 15 rebounds. It’s unclear how effective Nelson will be this weekend as he hurt his ankle in the final minute of last Saturday’s victory.

Final Four action begins on Friday at 6 p.m. at the Salem Civic Center, where the penultimate and final games of the Div. III season have been played for six years. The championship game will be played the next day. $10 tickets for all of the weekend’s action will remain on sale today in Lasell Gym lobby.