Men’s basketball drops 74-73 heartbreaker in NESCAC final

After pushing past Middlebury in overtime in the NESCAC semifinal men’s basketball (23-4, 9-1 in the NESCAC) lost a narrow, one-point game to Amherst on Sunday in the conference final. Amherst claimed the conference title with its 74-73 win; despite the loss, the men earned an at-large bid to the Div. III NCAA tournament and will host Wesley this Saturday at 7 p.m.

Sunday’s conference final with Amherst was tight from the get-go. The two teams traded baskets with the Jeffs, gaining a slight advantage with a 14-7 lead just under seven minutes in. The Ephs fought back with a three from co-captain James Klemm ’13 followed by a layup and a dunk from Sean Hoffmann ’13, giving Williams a 17-16 edge. Amherst crushed four long balls in the first, but Taylor Epley ’14 helped the men keep pace with a scorching 11 points in the opening half. The first half ended quietly, but the Jeffs went to the break with a 37-35 lead.

Play remained even to start the second, and Epley continued his stellar game. The junior hit a three at 15:05 to knot the game at 45-45. Amherst kept pace, however, claiming a 52-49 lead before a three from Daniel Wohl ’15 tied the game again at 10:21. Amherst again lived and died by the long ball, attempting 10 shots from behind the arc in the second and connecting on three of them. With 2:45 to play, Amherst notched a 70-64 edge, but Michael Mayer ’14 refused to relent, hitting a layup 15 seconds later to bring his team within four. Epley then made a huge three, his third of the game, tightening the game to 70-69 with two to play. Amherst’s Willy Workman made a pair of free throws, but Mayer tipped the ball in for two points to keep Amherst’s advantage at one. Workman made a pair of free throws with 25 seconds on the clock, giving the Jeffs a late 74-71 lead.

Epley came through again with a layup with 14 seconds on the clock, putting the game at 74-73 and giving the men hope of one more possession. Wohl fouled Amherst’s Aaron Toomey who missed his free throw. Mayer scooped up the defensive rebound, and the Ephs got the ball to sharp shooter Epley. Although Epley got a good look at the basket, he couldn’t connect with three seconds left, and the men fell 74-73 in a heartbreaking NESCAC final.

On Saturday, the men unseated Middlebury in the NESCAC final to advance in the tourney. A testament to the strength of the NESCAC this season, the Ephs’ battle with the Panthers’ was every bit as competitive as the final would be the next day. The men got a slight lead about five minutes in off a three from Klemm. Co-captain Nate Robertson ’13 backed him up with two points of his own, and the Ephs held an 11-6 lead. With one to play in the opening half, Hoffmann widened the Ephs’ lead to 34-27 with a dunk, but the Panthers responded with a shot from behind the arc. The Ephs had the last word in the half, though, as Wohl drained a three to send the men to the half with a 37-30 edge.

Middlebury clawed back in the second, eventually pulling out a 49-48 lead about seven minutes into the new half. Mayer and Epley fought to keep the men in the game, but Middlebury hit another three with 10 to play, claiming a 56-52 advantage. Epley then hit a three and drained another field goal, which Mayer followed up with a layup to establish a 59-56 edge for the Ephs with 8:26 on the clock. Wohl sank a key three, but Panther Joey Kizel hit his third long ball of the night, giving his team a one-point lead. With 1:31 to play, Epley scored a field goal to give the men a 76-73 lead, but Middlebury’s Jake Wolfin drilled a clutch three to tie the game at 76-76 and send the NESCAC semifinal to overtime.

Overtime was largely quiet from both teams, but the Ephs made their free throws at key moments, and the Panthers could not muster an adequate response. The Ephs walked away with an 87-80 win, and the Panthers were eliminated from the conference tournament.

“I think our mental toughness surfaced during the course of both games,” Klemm said. “Both Middlebury and Amherst are extremely talented and well coached, and we were prepared to be in a close game both days. We couldn’t be more excited about the NCAA tournament starting this weekend, especially since we get to play in front of a home crowd.  We really feel like we are hitting our stride as a team. As far as things we can improve upon, we can always get better defensively.  We’ve been improving in that department all year, but know we can be even better.  We know that we may not always be at our best offensively, but we can always hang our hat on defense to keep us in games.”

The men will host Wesley (20-7) in the Div. III NCAA tournament. Tipoff is Saturday at 7 p.m. in Chandler. Heading into the game, Williams is ranked No. 8 in Div. III by d3hoops.com.