Men’s basketball (29-2) stormed past Amherst on Saturday with a 76-71 victory to advance to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament. The men gained momentum going into the game with their 79-73 win over Virginia Wesleyan in the Sweet Sixteen on Friday.
Williams crashed the boards against Amherst, allowing the men to gain second-chance opportunities on offense and strong pushes across the court off defensive rebounds. With 15:20 left in the first half, tri-captain James Wang ’12 carried the ball up the court and drove hard to the basket, converting a lay-up to give the Ephs an early 9-5 lead. Wang finished with 15 points and seven boards.
Nate Robertson ’13 led the men in his first start after being sidelined by an ankle injury against Husson on March 4. Robertson’s three-pointer with 7:45 left in the first half gave the Ephs a commanding 22-12 lead. The Eph stuffed the stat sheet, leading the team with 22 points and contributing seven rebounds, three assists and two steals to the victory. “Our staff and his teammates recognize how valuable Nate is to our team,” Head Coach Mike Maker said. “His ability to make everyone around him better makes us an elite team.”
The Jeffs made a run in the waning minutes of the first half to cut the Ephs’ lead to 30-24 and prompt Maker to call a timeout.
Following the timeout, Williams countered Amherst’s surge with one of its own. James Klemm ’13 buried a deep three-pointer with one minute left in the half, and rookie guard Taylor Epley ’14 drove around a screen to sink a lay-up and give the Ephs a 39-34 lead going into halftime. Klemm finished with 17 points, sinking five of his seven three-point attempts. Epley tallied four points in the game.
The rival teams both came out firing in the second half. Tri-captain Troy Whittington ’11 took a hard foul under the basket and had to leave the game briefly to receive medical attention to his right hand. Despite the minor injury, Whittington returned to record 10 points, seven rebounds and three assists in the game.
Midway through the half, the Jeffs stole a 52-48 lead from the Ephs. Robertson subsequently cut the men’s deficit to two with a jumper from the top of the key, and Klemm drilled a three with 10 minutes left to regain a 55-54 lead. Following an Amherst turnover, Klemm drew a foul and successfully converted a three-point attempt. He sank the free throw to convert a four-point play, giving the Ephs a 59-54 lead with less than 10 minutes to play.
“I’m never surprised when James makes shots from behind the arc,” Maker said, “but that could have been the most difficult shot he’s had to make, and the most important in his short career.”
Up by two with under two minutes remaining, the Ephs continued to make clutch shots down the stretch. On a pick-and-roll play, Robertson found Whittington for a dunk that gave the Ephs a 72-68 lead. Amherst countered with another bucket, but Dodson fed Robertson behind the arc, and Robertson sank a three to increase the men’s lead to five.
With less than a minute left in the game, Wang sank two free throws to seal a 77-71 victory for the men. With the victory, Williams has punched its ticket for the team’s second consecutive Final Four appearance.
The men overcame a tough opponent in Virginia Wesleyan in the Sweet Sixteen round on Friday. Despite a solid effort by the Marlins, the Ephs came away with a 79-73 win.
Whittington scored the first eight points for the Ephs. Epley also chipped in with a three early on to extend the men’s lead to 11-2. Whittington finished the game with 28 points, 11 rebounds, four blocks and three assists; Epley tallied five points in the game.
“Troy is an inspirational leader,” Maker said. “His teammates and our crowd feed off his energy level.”
The Ephs saw their early lead vanish after a strong Marlin run, which culminated in a 15-14 Virginia Wesleyan advantage. The Marlins expanded their lead to end the first half up 34-27.
The Ephs came out firing in the second half, however, as Wang drilled a three-pointer to cut the Marlins’ lead to four. Despite Wang’s score, Virginia Wesleyan regained a five-point lead with about 16 minutes left.
Maker noted that the Ephs had to overcome the “quick and defensive-minded” Marlins, but also pointed out that their decision to “isolate Troy on the interior and drive the basketball and get to the free throw line” helped the Ephs manage the Marlins.
With 6:32 remaining, Wang drove hard down the lane and drew a foul. After Wang sunk both free throws, the men were still down by one at 59-58. In the ensuing possession, Robertson passed the ball to Whittington, who converted a dunk to give the men a 60-59 advantage.
Dodson extended the Ephs’ lead to 72-64, draining a three-point shot with 1:10 left in the second half. The men maintained their lead in the final minute as Wang, Whittington and Robertson all hit free throws. The men ended the night with a 79-73 tally and a pass to the Elite Eight.
With their wins this weekend. Williams will face the College of Wooster in Salem, Va., on Friday at 6:30 p.m. in the Final Four.