Amherst Eyes First Men's Basketball Crown Since 2006

Two-Time Champ Middlebury Looks for Third Title in Last Four Years

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HADLEY, Mass. – Four-time conference champion Amherst College will continue its quest for its first league title since 2006 when the top-seeded Lord Jeffs host the remaining rounds of the 2012 NESCAC Men's Basketball Championship this weekend at LeFrak Gymnasium in Amherst, Mass.

Amherst will take on fifth-seeded Bates at 5:30 p.m. followed by third-seeded Wesleyan clashing with the defending champs, second-seeded Middlebury, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday's winners will advance to Sunday's championship with a scheduled tip time of 2:30 p.m. Tickets for each day are $5 for adults and $2 for students. A webcast along with live statistics will be available for all games courtesy of Amherst.

Heading into the last weekend of league play, Amherst and Middlebury both knew that the team that prevailed in their season-ending match would walk away with the number-one seed. The two titans boasted undefeated conference marks of 9-0 entering their showdown in Amherst on Feb. 11, as the Lord Jeffs won a thriller over rival Williams the night before, 80-78, while the Panthers earned a road win at Trinity by a 76-47 score. After battling for forty minutes to win the top seed in the conference, the two teams were deadlocked at 69-all. Only after overtime was Amherst able to prevail over Middlebury by two, 77-75.

Amherst (23-2, 10-0 NESCAC) advanced to this year's semifinals with an 86-66 victory over eighth-seeded Hamilton in the opening round. The Lord Jeffs have four NESCAC titles to their credit, a figure matched only by Williams for the most in the conference, however it's been a while since Amherst has raised the championship trophy. Since overcoming Tufts in an epic 2006 final, the Jeffs have struggled to return to the top of the mountain. Amherst lost in the 2007 final by one point to rival Williams and fell in its most recent appearance in the Sunday showcase to Middlebury in 2009, the Panthers' first crown.

Hoping to bring the Jeffs that elusive fifth title are the trio of senior Taylor Barrise (Allendale, N.J.), junior Willy Workman (Northampton, Mass.), and sophomore Aaron Toomey (Greensboro, N.C.). The three highlight an offense that has delighted fans this season and ranks second among conference teams, scoring nearly 80 points per game. Toomey, the 2011 NESCAC Rookie of the Year, ranks among the league leaders with 16.7 points (6th), 4.83 assists (2nd), and 1.88 steals per game (1st).

Back in the semifinals for the second time in three years is fifth-seeded Bates (13-12, 5-5 NESCAC). Holding a 4-2 record just past the midway point in the conference schedule, the Bobcats stumbled over their final four games, including a 67-54 setback to Amherst on Feb. 3, and entered the playoffs nursing a 5-5 mark. Left for dead, the Bobcats surprised fourth-seeded Tufts in the quarterfinals, using an 18-3 run over a nine-minute span in the second half and holding off a furious comeback attempt to defeat the host Jumbos 57-54 and advance to the semis for the second time in three years.

While Bates suffered a 79-57 loss to Middlebury to open the NESCAC slate, the Bobcats did earn a key 77-60 victory at Wesleyan on Jan. 21. Bates has faced Amherst in four of its nine previous tournament appearances, and in each of those four meetings the Lord Jeffs have ended the Bobcats' playoff run, most notably in the 2005 final which went to Amherst 65-57 - the only time Bates has reached the title game. Looking to keep their team's season going are senior forward John Squires (Swampscott, Mass.) along with juniors Mark Brust (Duxbury, Mass.) and Ed Bogdanovich (Portland, Maine). All three are in the midst of career years as they lead the Bobcats in scoring, with Squires pacing his squad with 13.4 points and 9.4 rebounds per game.

While the overtime loss at Amherst relegated Middlebury (23-2, 9-1 NESCAC) to the second seed, the defending NESCAC champions have proven that they are one of the hardest teams to beat, not just in the conference but in the entire nation. The Panthers' pair of setbacks this season have been by a combined three points, falling at Keene St. on Jan. 31, 77-76, and the aforementioned loss to the Lord Jeffs. Middlebury had one of the toughest opening round draws in this year's tournament with a dangerous Williams squad looking for an upset. After edging the Ephs by one point in a home win back on Jan. 28, the Panthers took care of business in the quarterfinals, 73-61. These past six years have been the best in program history for Middlebury, as the Panthers have reached new heights every year since winning their first playoff game in 2006. Middlebury won its first NESCAC title in 2009, finished as the runner-up to Williams in 2010, then raised its second championship banner in 2011 en route to their first-ever appearance in the NCAA semifinals.

This season, the Panthers sit atop the conference in numerous statistical categories, including scoring offense (80.1), rebounding margin (+9.0), field goal percentage (.511), and field goal percent defense (.383). Highlighting a talented Panther squad this season are senior Ryan Sharry (Braintree, Mass.), junior Jake Wolfin (Woodcliff Lake, N.J.), and sophomore Joey Kizel (Short Hills, N.J.). Although Sharry missed the first five games this season due to injury, he has made a strong case for NESCAC Player of the Year as leads the league in scoring with a career-best 19.9 points per game, more than six points higher than his junior year average, with a stellar shooting percentage of .643. He's also one of only two players in the conference averaging a double-double, as he has pulled down 10.1 rebounds per game. Wolfin's 5.56 assists per game are tops in the NESCAC for the second year in a row, and Kizel is second to Sharry in scoring among his teammates, averaging 13.8. points per game.

After recording just 11 victories and missing out on the conference playoffs a year ago, third-seeded Wesleyan (20-5, 7-3 NESCAC) not only made the field this winter but also secured a home quarterfinal match for the first time since 2003. The Cardinals made the most of their opportunity, punching their ticket to the semifinals for just the third time ever with a convincing 78-59 decision over Bowdoin. It's been a remarkable year on the hardwood for Wesleyan. The Cardinals opened the 2011-12 campaign with a 9-1 mark and boast their first 20-win season in program history.

A victory in the semifinals would keep Wesleyan's dream season alive and avenge a regular season loss to Middlebury in the process. Back on Jan. 14, the Panthers escaped Middletown with a 65-62 win over the Cardinals, however Wesleyan hasn't been beaten twice by the same squad this season, downing Williams and Amherst in rematches. Looking to lead their team to its first appearance in the finals and also the program's first NESCAC title are juniors Shasha Brown (Harlem, N.Y.) and Mike Callaghan (Madison, Conn.). The pair are atop the Cardinals' score sheet, with Brown averaging a team-best 17.3 points per game (4th NESCAC) while Callaghan is second at 12.5.

2012 NESCAC MEN'S BASKETBALL CHAMPIONSHIP
Quarterfinals - Saturday, Feb. 18 at Higher Seeds
at No. 1 Amherst 86, No. 8 Hamilton 66
at No. 2 Middlebury 73, No. 7 Williams 61
at No. 3 Wesleyan 78, No. 6 Bowdoin 59
No. 5 Bates 57, at No. 4 Tufts 54

Semifinals - Saturday, February 25 at Amherst
No. 5 Bates at No. 1 Amherst - 5:30 p.m.
No. 3 Wesleyan vs. No. 2 Middlebury - 7:30 p.m.

Championship - Sunday, February 26
Semifinal winners - 2:30 p.m.

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