Men’s hoops captures 4th NESCAC title

Men’s basketball (26-1) never trailed in either of its two games this weekend as the team charged through the final rounds of the NESCAC tournament this weekend, trouncing Bates in the semifinals 71-48 and dispatching Middlebury in the championship on Sunday by a final score of 64-56. The Ephs did not disappoint an enthusiastic home crowd as they claimed their fourth NESCAC title and their first since 2007. The two wins extended their winning streak to an astounding 17 straight contests.

Sunday’s final was expected to be a hotly contested, highly emotional battle between two very skilled teams. Williams entered the game ranked second in the nation and seeded first in the conference, while Middlebury was ranked sixth in the nation and second in the conference on the strength of a 22-2 regular season. Williams had defeated Middlebury on the road in the teams’ first meeting this season on Jan. 30 by a 15-point margin, 79-64; however, the Panthers were fielding an experienced squad and, as the reigning NESCAC champions, were eager to defend their title.

The Ephs came out of the gates hot, scoring 10 points in the first four minutes while preventing the flustered Panthers from answering. The men continued to pressure the Middlebury squad and found great success, attaining a 32-15 lead after a layup by Nate Robertson ’13 with just over six minutes to play in the half. However, the Panthers then fought their way back into the game, going on a 13-4 run over the next four minutes to bring the score to 36-28. Co-captain Joe Geoghegan ’10 scored the last bucket of the half, making a lay-up in the final minute to send his team into the locker room with a 38-28 lead.

For the first five minutes of the second half, the teams traded baskets as Williams responded in kind to each Middlebury offensive foray. The Panthers twice cut the deficit to five before Alex Rubin ’10 knocked down a crucial three-point basket and Troy Whittington ’11 dealt the Panthers a demoralizing blow with a huge dunk to make the score 54-44 with just over nine minutes to play. James Wang ’12 then took over the Williams offensive efforts, knocking down two three-pointers to counter a pair of Middlebury baskets. A furious flurry by the Panthers cut the Williams lead to 60-56 with a minute and a half to play, but the Ephs held strong defensively and Wang knocked down four free throws to close out the contest.

The Ephs struggled somewhat offensively, shooting only 44.2 percent from the field and making just six baskets from beyond the arc on 19 attempts. They were up to the challenge defensively, however, holding the Panthers to a measly 34 percent from the field. Williams also had an advantage on the boards, nabbing 40 rebounds to Middlebury’s 34. Wang paced the offense as the only Eph in double figures with 19 total points, while eight other Ephs contributed at least three points each to the day’s 64 point total.

“Hosting and winning the conference tournament were two of our goals when we met as a team at the end of last season,” Ethan Timmins-Schiffman ’10 said.  “To achieve both gives us a tremendous feeling, and we did it against a very good Middlebury team that deserves a lot of credit. The most important thing right now is that we won as a team and we are enjoying this accomplishment as a team.”

Saturday’s contest against Bates was also an unusually low-scoring game for a characteristically prolific and offensively powerful Williams squad. Wang piloted the offense, getting into paint and putting in some hard-fought layups, and the Ephs led 32-23 by halftime, shooting 50 percent from the field but missing all eight attempts from beyond the arc.

Bates came out hard after the break and cut the Eph lead to five with just over 13 minutes to play in the game, but Williams responded with an 11-point run that was highlighted by massive dunks by Whittington and co-captain Blake Schultz ’10. The men held strong over the final 10 minutes of the game, outscoring the Bobcats 18-11 and protecting their lead from any real danger to claim the 71-48 victory.

The men also shot 50 percent from the field in the second half, but upped the defensive efforts to hold Bates to only 35 percent shooting. Wang notched 20 points, six rebounds and six assists on the game, while Schultz also reached double figures with 15 points and four steals.

Wang was named NESCAC Player of the Week for the fourth time this season and for the second consecutive week following his dominant performance on the weekend. Schultz has also been recognized on an individual level, named as one of 10 finalists for the Jostens Trophy, which goes to the most accomplished Div. III men’s and women’s players of the year annually. Basketball ability, academic achievements and community service are all considered as part of the award. Both Ephs have performed extremely well this season: Schultz is averaging 18.4 points and a 52.1 percent field goal percentage, while Wang claims 16.9 points per game and a 57.1 percent field goal percentage. Each is averaging 4.3 rebounds per game.

“Every team picks up their defense during the playoffs, so it was no surprise that both games this weekend were not as high-scoring as we are used to,” Schultz said. “We have now proven that we can win in both high- and low-scoring games, which will become very important in the NCAA tournament as we face many different styles of play.”

Men’s basketball will head into NCAAs with a lot of confidence and momentum as the No. 1 seed in its region. The Ephs have earned a first round bye and will host the winner of the contest between Bridgewater State (19-7, MASCAC champions) and Maine-Farmington (14-11, North Atlantic Conference champions) on Saturday in Chandler Gymnasium.