The Panthers traveled to Bates and Tufts to begin conference play this weekend and came away with two wins by a total of 4 points, beating the Bobcats 59-56 and the Jumbos 70-69, and maintaining an undefeated record on the season.
In Lewiston on Friday, it was Bates’ defense keeping the game close, especially early, as Middlebury was held to 26 first half points. Bates played very physical in the paint, and the referees weren’t calling anything (first foul on either team was fifteen minutes in), making it tough going for Peter Lynch (4-9 FG) and company down low. On the other end, Middlebury’s guards had trouble sticking with Luke Matarazzo and Graham Safford on isolation drives to the hoop (with so few bigs, Bates often spreads the floor, taking away help defenders). The biggest concern, however, was that Middlebury was outrebounded 42-24 by a smaller Bobcats team, including 14-3 on the offensive boards. We knew Middlebury would regress on the boards without Ryan Sharry, but it has been worse than anybody expected. It’s on Jensen, Lynch, Roberts, and Merryman to turn this around.
Middlebury was able to maintain their slim lead in large part because of the play of their two star guards, Thompson and Kizel. Both were 5-9 from the field, scoring 13 and 17 points respectively. One of the most encouraging signs of the game was Middlebury’s final half-court possession of the game, when they needed a basket and Joey Kizel went isolation on his man and hit a step back jumper. We have discussed it here before, but Kizel is as good as it gets with the game on the line. Jake Wolfin (12 points) was the only other Panther in double figures, and hit some key free throws in the final minute. Hunter Merryman, who had been averaging nearly 13 points per game, was shut out in a lackluster seven minutes of play. Bates was led in scoring by Safford (14 pts) and freshman Mike Boornazian (12 pts).
Saturday’s game was even tighter, with Middlebury losing for most of the game. Middlebury’s offense was out of sync again early, putting up a 39% field goal percentage in the first half. While Nolan Thompson played great defense on Tufts’ leading scorer Ben Ferris (Ferris had four points today, the same total as last season; he has two career made field goals vs. Midd), the rest of the Middlebury defense struggled immensely. Tufts’ starting frontcourt–Tom Palleschi and Scott Anderson–combined for 23 points on 10-18 shooting in the first half. Midd’s bigs didn’t make up for their poor defensive showing either: Lynch, Roberts, and Churchill (who got significant minutes early) combined for 4 points, 2 rebounds, and 5 turnovers in 29 first-half minutes. The Jumbos stretched their lead to 37-24 at one point in the first half before a pair of Middlebury threes shrunk the lead to seven heading into the break.
The second half started with more struggles for the Panthers, as the lead was extended to 43-30 in the first two minutes. Palleschi, the 6’8″ freshman, continued to pile on points in the second half, finding the basket in a variety of ways on his way to a game-high 27 points. Palleschi was able to score with post moves from six to eight feet away from the basket, hitting a few lefty hook shots and using his length to find shooting angles around the Middlebury defenders. He could make Tufts a much more complete team in the future.
Middlebury finally pulled together at about the 13-minute mark, down 52-39. A Nate Bulluck layup followed by a Jake Wolfin (13 points, 5-9 FG) three cut the lead to single digits before CJ Moss responded with a layup of his ownto bring it back to ten. In the next two minutes, Hunter Merryman scored eight points on 3-3 shooting as a part of a 10-6 Middlebury run. Middlebury finally started to score inside after that, hitting six layups and four free throws in the next two minutes, making it 70-65 visitors with two minutes to play. Tufts then made two unanswered field goals before Middlebury turned it over with under twenty seconds to go (a long pass from Wolfin to Jensen was errant), giving the Jumbos a chance for the outright win in regulation. Kwame Firempong drove to the hoop as the clock ticked under five seconds (Why wait? If you’re losing, you should shoot game-winner at :10 so you can foul and get another chance if you miss) and could not get a good shot off in traffic. Middlebury secured the rebound and won the game, slipping away from an ugly weekend with a still-perfect record.
When we predicted a Tufts win, we said it was because the Jumbos had the talent to beat a top-tier team, and that was evident Saturday. They have a lot of pieces and although they struggled to come together early in the season, their ceiling in any one game is high enough that they could be the sort of team that upsets one of the big three and makes a NESCAC tournament run this year.
Although the biggest concern this weekend was the post play, a more puzzling statistic was Kizel’s 2-6 showing from the free throw line Saturday, since he shot 91% from the stripe last season. Joey made up for it by leading the team in rebounds (9), assists (5), and steals (2). Here’s a telling statistic relating back to the struggles in the post: Middlebury’s starting backcourt (Kizel, Wolfin, Thompson) finished the game with 23 rebounds, while the rest of the players combined for six.
With the win, Middlebury now has a 40-game winning streak against NESCAC teams outside of Williams and Amherst. The Panthers host Connecticut College and Wesleyan next weekend and J-term should bring a strong crowd to Pepin as the Panthers look to remain undefeated.