Men’s hoops advances to first Final Four since ’04

With its impressive play last weekend, men’s basketball (29-1) advanced to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament after claiming victories over SUNYIT in the Sweet 16 on Friday and Brandeis in the Elite Eight on Saturday. The team came from behind to defeat Brandeis 71-57 after dispatching SUNYIT on Friday night, 104-70. With the two wins, the Ephs extend their winning streak to 20 straight games – a team record for in-season wins – and go undefeated in Chandler Gymnasium for the first time since the 2003-04 season. Head Coach Mike Maker has also been named regional coach of the year.

Chandler was packed on Saturday night as the purple-clad Sixth Man fan following showed up in full force to support the Ephs. For much of the first half, however, it appeared that the sold-out crowd might go home disappointed. The Judges came out of the gate firing and led 21-12; it was the Ephs’ largest deficit of the postseason. The Ephs responded with a 14-4 run of their own to take the lead for the first time at 26-25 with just under five minutes to play in the half, and the team managed to head into the locker room after a tense half with a slight 35-32 lead.

The statistics reveal that the teams were as evenly matched as the score showed: The Ephs shot 46 percent from the field, while the Judges made 44 percent of the shots they attempted.

The second half started out much the same as the first as the Judges regained the lead, putting the score up to 41-39 in the first five minutes. But with the score 44-41 in favor of Brandeis, co-captain Blake Schultz ’10 and James Wang ’12 came up huge, reigniting the Williams offense by knocking down a crucial three pointer and a penetrating layup, respectively, to retake the lead 46-44. The Judges responded with a three-pointer of their own to quiet the exuberant Williams crowd, but Troy Whittington ’11 scored five consecutive points to establish a 51-47 lead that the Ephs would not relinquish again in the contest. The men then became defensive stalwarts in the final eight minutes of the game, holding Brandeis to only 10 points while making every trip down the court count to close out the game with a 14-point victory that belied the difficulty and anxiety of the matchup.

Williams maintained its 46 percent shooting in the second half while holding Brandeis to a shockingly low 27 percent from the field. The Ephs were also impressive from the free throw line, making 13 of 15 attempts in the half, and even more impressive around the hoop for th game, nabbing 39 total rebounds while giving up only 27 to the Judges. Schultz paced the Ephs with 29 points, while Wang and Whittington contributed with 18 and 14 points, respectively. Whittington also snagged a game-high 10 rebounds to claim his first double-double of the season.

Friday’s game was an entirely different story, as the team dominated SUNYIT from the get-go. Though the men gave up the first basket of the game to SUNYIT, hot shooting from the entire lineup led to an 18-8 lead only five minutes into the game. The Wildcats managed to cut the Ephs’ lead to a five-point margin several times, but the hot hands of Alex Rubin ’10 and the crippling dunks of Whittington protected and expanded the lead. The Ephs headed into the locker room up 50-34 on the strength of impressive shooting: The men went 56 percent from the field and 58 percent from beyond the arc while knocking down all seven of their free throws.

The Wildcats managed to score the first five points of the second half, but proved no match for the potent Williams offense. Wang and Schultz took the burden from Rubin and Whittington and stepped up to the plate on the offensive end with 14 second-half points each, and it seemed that the Ephs could not miss as fall-away jumpers and three-pointers poured into the basket. The Ephs led by as many as 36 points at one point during the half and closed out the game 104-70 as Mike Moorstein ’10 knocked down two three-pointers in the final minutes.

The team proved even more productive offensively in the second half, shooting 63 percent from the field and an astonishing 67 percent from three-point range (10-15). Rubin, Wang and Schultz all finished with 21 points and combined for 11 assists. Whittington also reached double figures with 14 points, while Nate Robinson ’13 played unselfish basketball to record four points and eight assists on the night.

“When we shoot the ball like we did on Friday, we are very difficult to guard because we can score in a number of ways,” co-captain Joe Geoghegan ’10 said. “On other nights, and against better teams, we simply have to find other ways to win. We entered Saturday’s game knowing that Brandeis played a hard-nosed variety of defense and that we would have to be more patient to find ways to score. We knew that the stakes were higher and that no team will just lay down when a trip to the final four is on the line.”

Stakes notwithstanding, the men stuck to the mentality that had served them well all season. “After Friday’s victory, we tried to approach Saturday’s game with the same mentality we have had all season: That it was just one game, a big game because it was our next one, and we needed to do nothing special in order to win,” Ethan Timmins-Schiffman ’10 said. “Our mentality was to play our game, to be aggressive and to attack, and we will carry this same mentality into this Friday’s game against Guilford.”

The Ephs have used the week to prepare mentally and physically for the Final Four. They are slated to face the squad from Guilford (30-2) at 5 p.m. on Friday night in Salem, Va. The other semifinal game features a matchup between Wisconsin-Steven’s Point and Randolph Macon, whch handed Williams its only loss of the season. The Ephs enter the game ranked first in the nation in field goal shooting (52.4 percent), three-point shooting (45.8 percent) and scoring margin (20.7), but will certainly be tested by a very capable Guilford team, which stands fifth in the country in scoring margin (15.2).