Men’s basketball falls to Panthers in NESCAC quarterfinals

Facing a formidable challenge as the seventh seed in the NESCAC tournament, men’s basketball (17-8, 5-5 in the NESCAC) fell to top-ranked Middlebury 73-61 on Saturday. The loss eliminated the Ephs from the conference tournament, and they will now await word on an at-large bid to the Div. III NCAA tournament in March.

Williams opened Saturday’s game strong, with Nate Robertson ’13 and Taylor Epley ’14 putting up points en route to a 6-2 advantage five minutes into the game. The Ephs kept the ball in their court, limiting the Panthers’ looks at the basket in the early minutes. At 12:52, the men held a 10-7 advantage on the strength of a pair of layups from Michael Mayer ’14 and tri-captain James Wang ’12. However, Middlebury then clawed its way back into the game, scoring nine straight points to take a 19-10 lead with five minutes to play in the opening frame.

Robertson refused to let up, however, netting a layup and a free throw for the Ephs and tightening the game to 19-13. With three to play in the half, James Klemm ’13 and Hayden Rooke-Ley ’14 got in on the action, each swishing one from behind the arc to bring the score to 24-19. The Panthers fought back and scored six unanswered baskets, racking up a 30-19 lead with 48 seconds remaining in the half. Robertson sunk a pair of free throws and Rooke-Ley netted a three to narrow Middlebury’s lead to 32-24 at the break.

Middlebury opened the second with a three, but the men steadily fought back in the opening minutes. Tri-captain Brian Emerson ’12 banked a pair of layups, Rooke-Ley continued his strong game with a jumper and Klemm swished a layup off an offensive rebound from Robertson to put Williams within five at 37-32 with 16:07 remaining. After a Panther free throw, Wang sunk a three with an assist from Robertson to fire the Ephs back into the game, bringing the score to 38-35. Middlebury then scored three unanswered points, but Mayer collected his own rebound to cut the deficit to 41-37 with 14:30 remaining.

Despite strong play from the men, Middlebury racked up an eight-point lead off a series of second-look opportunities by the midpoint of the second. The Ephs then stepped it up on defense, forcing a pair of Panther turnovers and using solid play at the boards to hold the home team scoreless for three minutes. However, the men struggled with their shooting, missing the net on four straight possessions, and Middlebury held a 10-point lead heading to the final two minutes of the game. Epley then tried a three, but his shot missed the net. Rooke-Ley was there to collect the rebound, and he made good on a layup to bring the score to 61-53 in Middlebury’s favor with two on the clock. Mayer then fouled, giving the Panthers two shots at the line, which they sunk for a 63-53 lead. The men could not get their shots to fall, and Middlebury remained solid at the line, ultimately racking up a 12-point advantage. On the final possession of the game, Daniel Wohl ’15 missed a shot from behind the arc and Middlebury walked off the courts with a decisive 73-61 victory.

Despite the loss, Robertson turned in an impressive performance, leading the Ephs with 19 points, five boards and three assists. “I really think Nate is the best point guard in all of Div. III,” Head Coach Mike Maker said. “He has a wonderful basketball IQ and tremendous vision. He makes everybody around him better.”

Rooke-Ley had a solid two-way game, netting 10 points and collecting eight rebounds. “Hayden is a talented young man with a lot of toughness,” Maker said.“We’re looking for big things from him the next couple of years.”

Despite missing practice for the week leading up to the game due to an emergency appendectomy, Wang played 23 minutes, scoring five points and snaring three boards.

The men shot just 34.4 percent from the field, while Middlebury racked up a 37.7-percent clip. The Ephs struggled with the long ball, going four for 29 from behind the arc. Williams had a solid night at the boards, collecting 42 rebounds to Middlebury’s 40.

“I thought our defense was phenomenal,” Maker said. “We had a lot of energy, and it was a collective effort – it wasn’t just our inside guys, all five guys were in on the action. They responded to the challenge well.”

With their season possibly on the books, the men will graduate three seniors this spring. Tri-captains Emerson, Wang and Jordan Mickens ’12 will wrap up their careers this year.

“James has done a lot for our program over the last four years. I can’t say enough about him,” Maker said. “Brian brought so much toughness and intelligence to the team. The stability he brought to the front line will certainly be missed. Jordan has been the consummate team player, and he contributed a lot to the team this year.”

The men must await word on a possible at-large bid to the Div. III NCAA tournament, which will begin on March 2. At-large bids will be announced at the end of the week. Williams is not currently ranked in the top 25.

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