Ephs fall in NESCAC Championship, earn at-large NCAA bid

Daniel Wohl ’15 contributed 11 points and five rebounds in the loss at Amherst last Sunday.
Daniel Wohl ’15 contributed 11 points and five rebounds in the loss at Amherst last Sunday.

Men’s basketball (23-4, 11-1 in the NESCAC) battled to the finals of the NESCAC tournament on Saturday before ultimately losing the conference title to rival Amherst in Sunday’s championship game. After narrowly escaping Middlebury on Saturday with a 78-75 win, Williams lost the second-half battle against Amherst, taking second in the NESCAC after dropping the championship game 93-82.

The first 10 minutes of Saturday’s game against Middlebury gave good indication of how tight the game would be, with both teams trading baskets. Five minutes into the half, the score was neck-and-neck at 12-11 Middlebury. The Ephs kept the contest close with strong play by tri-captain Michael Mayer ’14, who scored six points in the first five minutes. Williams looked to be gaining momentum after a three from Hayden Rooke-Ley ’15 put the men up 21-17, but a series of missed threes gave Middlebury another crack at the game about 10 minutes in. Middlebury broke off a 12-point run in the final minutes of the first, burying Williams in a 42-34 hole that made the game appear considerably one-sided. Mayer hit a shot from behind the arc and then a jumper to keep the Ephs competitive, but the Panthers hit the locker room with a 50-39 edge.

The second half brought a reinvigorated Eph squad, and the team looked to Mayer to set the tone on both sides of the ball. Five minutes into the half, tri-captain Taylor Epley ’14 cut the deficit to five with a three, and things only got closer as Mayer hit a layup, and Rooke-Ley sank a pair of free throws to narrow the deficit to 56-53 with 12:41 to play. After Middlebury hit back-to-back threes, Daniel Wohl ’15 sank a huge three to put the game at 64-58 Middlebury. The Ephs then hit six free throws in a row to tie the game at 64 all with 7:27 to play. The men got their first lead of the second and completed their slow but steady comeback with a layup from Mayer at 2:44, earning a 72-70 advantage. The Ephs won the game at the line in the final minutes, hitting six foul shots to close out the game with a nail-biting 78-75 win in the semifinals.

Mayer was nothing short of phenomenal with 27 points and seven boards, while rookie Duncan Robinson ’17 led the team with eight boards and notched 12 points. The Panthers outshot the Ephs 47.5 percent to 41.1 percent, but the Ephs held the advantage at the line, shooting 80.8 percent on free throws while the Panthers hit just 70.0 percent.

On Sunday, the men played Amherst particularly hard in the first half of the NESCAC Championship game, giving the stalwart performance they had struggled to pull out against Amherst during the regular season. Mayer started the game with a dunk, setting up a competitive and hard-fought game. Epley was the hot hand in the opening minutes for the Ephs, while Tom Killian put up some huge numbers on the Jeffs’ side. At 15:03, Robinson sank a three, but Killian responded with a layup to put Amherst up 16-15. Killian followed with a three-point basket, and the Ephs found themselves clawing back from a 19-15 deficit. Epley hit a three, followed by a huge three from Ryan Kilcullen ’15 to square the game away at 23-23 with 11:15 in the half. Epley gave the Ephs a lead with a long ball, and a jumper by Robinson put them up 28-25 with 9:17 left. The men then broke a nine-point lead to sink Amherst into a 37-28 disadvantage with about five to play. The Jeffs got hot again, and the half ended with Robinson and Jeff Connor Gach trading threes for a score of 45-44 at the break.

Amherst opened the second with a three to steal the lead, and though the men tied the game and keep it close for most of the half, Amherst took home the conference crown on the strength of an impressive second half. The game was still tight with 11:00 to play when Robinson hit a jumper, but Connor Green nailed a three in response to keep Amherst up 69-64. A nine-point run with less than seven to play was precisely what the Jeffs needed to put the Ephs away, and they distanced themselves in the final minutes of the half. The game ended with Amherst up 93-82, giving the Jeffs their third-straight conference title.

Robinson caught fire for 26 points, but Jeffs Killian and Green had 31 and 21 points, respectively. Amherst shot 51.8 percent from the field while the Ephs shot 47.6 percent.

“Against Amherst, we started the game well and played a solid first half,” said tri-captain John Weihnheimer ’14. “We give them a lot of credit – they played an incredible game.”

With the conference title, Amherst earned an automatic bid to the Div. III NCAA tournament. Williams received an at-large bid to the tournament, and the men will host Mitchell in the first round on Friday at 8 p.m.