Old Rivalries Renewed as Amherst, Williams Clash in Semifinals
HADLEY, Mass. - Top-seeded Middlebury College will look to secure its first conference crown this weekend when the Panthers host the final rounds of the 2009 NESCAC Men’s Basketball Championship at Pepin Gym in Middlebury, Vt. Middlebury will face fifth-seeded Bowdoin in the first semifinal on Saturday, Feb. 28 at 2:00 p.m., followed by second-seeded Amherst clashing with third-seeded Williams at 4:00 p.m. The 2009 NESCAC Men’s Basketball Championship concludes on Sunday, March 1 with the final getting underway at 12:00 p.m. Tickets for this weekend’s championship are $5 for adults and $2 for students. Fans unable to attend the game will be able to catch all the action live via the Internet at D3Cast.com.
Middlebury (22-3, 8-1 NESCAC) is currently in the midst of a record-setting year. The Panthers have earned a program-high 22 victories along with posting a school-best 17-game winning streak and the number-one seed in the NESCAC Men’s Basketball Championship for the first time ever. Middlebury locked up the top spot in this winter’s tournament during the final weekend of the regular season, as a 78-76 double-overtime victory at Trinity combined with Williams’ win at Amherst on Feb. 13 guaranteed the Panthers home court advantage throughout the playoffs. The Panthers rise to the upper echelon of the NESCAC has been progressive over the past few years. Middlebury hosted a quarterfinal contest for the first time in 2007, then reached the conference semifinals for the first time a year later in 2008 but fell to eventual champion Trinity by a 72-63 score. In the 2009 quarterfinals, the Panthers rebounded from a 71-64 season finale loss at Amherst, which snapped their 17-game winning streak, by rolling past eighth-seeded Connecticut College 78-62. Statistically this season, Middlebury ranks fourth in the league in scoring offense, averaging 73.2 points per game, while the defense has been superb by allowing an average 60.7 points per game (2nd NESCAC), holding opponents to a .369 shooting percentage (1st), and swatting away an average 7.04 shots per game (1st). Leading the Panthers on the court in 2008-09 has been senior guard Ben Rudin (Scarsdale, N.Y.). The 2006 NESCAC Rookie of the Year, Rudin is fifth among all conference players in scoring with 16.2 points per game as he has paced his team in points in 15 of Middlebury’s 25 outings, including the last seven games. Rudin set a career mark for scoring in the loss at Amherst on Feb. 14 with 29 points, then tied it the next time out against Connecticut College in the quarterfinals. As prolific as his scoring numbers are, Rudin is also tops in the conference in assists, averaging 4.52 per game. Rudin broke the Middlebury record for career assists earlier this season in a win over Wesleyan on Jan. 24.
Looking to derail the Panthers’ title hopes will be fifth-seeded Bowdoin (17-8, 5-4 NESCAC). The Polar Bears surprised Maine rival Colby in the quarterfinals last weekend by claiming a 66-54 victory to reach the semifinals for the second-straight year. Playing the role of spoiler is nothing new to the Polar Bears. During the 2008 tournament, Bowdoin ousted top-seeded Amherst 65-64 and eventually finished as the runner-up to Trinity. In order to put on a repeat performance this weekend in the hopes of playing for another shot at the conference crown, the Polar Bears will have to do something they have not been able to do since the 2005-06 season - defeat the Panthers - in what will be the first-ever postseason meeting between the two squads. Middlebury has won the last three meetings with Bowdoin, most recently posting a 62-50 win over the Polar Bears at home on Feb. 6. Although Bowdoin ranks ninth in scoring offense with an average 65.2 points per game, its defense is once again the best in the conference, allowing on average a league-low 57.4 points per outing and holding down third in field goal percentage defense at .387. On the court, senior guard Kyle Jackson (Acton, Mass.) is the top returning scorer from last season after the Polar Bears lost their two other All-NESCAC double-digit scorers to graduation, averaging 10.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. Filling in the gap for Bowdoin has been junior center Mark Phillips (Ashland, Mass.), as his team-leading 12.3 points per game are more than double his performance from last season. Over his two years with the Polar Bears, Phillips has maintained a 60-percent shooting average.
The second semifinal will feature a pair of rivals that have combined to win seven of the previous eight NESCAC championships. Second-seeded Amherst (20-5, 7-2 NESCAC) will battle third-seeded Williams (17-8, 6-3 NESCAC) for the third time this season during Saturday’s late match. The Lord Jeffs took the first meeting of the 2008-09 campaign with a 65-60 non-conference victory at Williams on Jan. 10. The Ephs responded in the league meeting on Feb. 13 in Amherst, Mass. with an 89-78 win that denied the Jeffs a shot at the number-one seed. Previous postseason meetings between the two teams have been legendary. Williams holds a slim 3-2 advantage over Amherst in all-time tournament play, with all three wins coming in the championship game to give the Ephs their three titles in 2003, 2004 and 2007. The Lord Jeffs, meanwhile, last earned a playoff victory over the Ephs in the semifinals of the 2002 tournament. While the 2008-09 campaign has had a few more bumps in the road than many Lord Jeff fans are accustomed to in recent memory, Amherst has still managed to put together a 20-win season for the ninth year in a row - the only current NESCAC team to accomplish such a feat. The Jeffs punched their ticket to this year’s semifinals with their 20th victory, an 80-66 decision over defending NESCAC champion Trinity. On the court, senior G/F Brian Baskauskas (Palo Alto, Calif.) has provided the bulk of the Lord Jeffs offense this season, as his 16.6 points per game put him fourth among conference players in scoring. Baskauskas also ranks among the league leaders in shooting percentage, hitting .522 percent of his shots and .402 from beyond the arc. The unknown factor will be the impact of junior G/F Steven Wheeler (Bloomington, Minn.). After missing the final five games of the regular season due to injury, Amherst’s second leading scorer returned to the lineup against Trinity and scored 14 points.
Williams heads into Saturday’s showdown with Amherst an even 3-3 over its last six games. The Ephs ended the regular season with an 83-73 loss at Trinity on Feb. 14 but rebounded in the quarterfinals with an 87-78 win over Bates. Of Williams three conference setbacks this year, two came against the teams competing in the first semifinal, a 67-62 loss at Middlebury on Jan. 31 and a 76-71 defeat against Bowdoin on Feb. 7. Comparing the Ephs and the Lord Jeffs statistically, Williams is tops in the conference in scoring offense, averaging 76.7 points per game, however Amherst is not too far behind in second with an average of 76.5 points per game and a conference-high .472 shooting percentage. Defensively, Amherst is third in the league with a 62.5 points allowed average, while Williams is fifth at 64.5. Pacing the Ephs this season has been the tandem of junior G/F Blake Schultz (Atherton, Calif.) and senior guard Kevin Snyder (Littleton, Colo.). The duo is currently among the league leaders in scoring, with Schultz ranking second with an average 18.1 points per game and Snyder in third at 16.8 points per contest.
2009 NESCAC MEN’S BASKETBALL CHAMPIONSHIP
Quarterfinals - Saturday, Feb. 21 at Higher Seeds
at No. 1 Middlebury 78, No. 8 Connecticut College 62
at No. 2 Amherst 80, No. 7 Trinity 66
at No. 3 Williams 87, No. 6 Bates 78
No. 5 Bowdoin 66, at No. 4 Colby 54
Semifinals - Saturday, February 28 at Middlebury
No. 5 Bowdoin at No. 1 Middlebury - 2:00 p.m.
No. 3 Williams at No. 2 Amherst - 4:00 p.m.
Championship - Sunday, March 1
Semifinal winners - 12:00 p.m.