The Panthers had Williams on the ropes, up eight with five minutes to go, and fell apart, ultimately losing by one, 64-63, after scoring only one basket in those last five minutes. The end of the game was in too many ways similar to the loss at Keene State last year, and — to a lesser extent — the close wins over Williams last year, and Tufts and Wesleyan this year. When Middlebury is up late in these big games, they start playing not-to-lose way too early, the offense becomes stagnant and clumsy, and the defense unwinds in step. It’s become so typical of this team that we have come to expect it. Something frustratingly obvious changes on the court and once it happens, we just watch and hope the buzzer goes off before the other team has taken full advantage. Whether it’s the hand-off offense or the no-penetration mindset of the guards or the timidness of the big guys down low, they become a different team and it doesn’t work and it wastes great performances. If the Panthers want to beat truly quality opponents down the road, from Keene State to Amherst to Tufts or Williams in the conference tournament, they will need to start closing aggressively and mercilessly, something of which they are capable.
On the game in general, it would be unfair not to mention the defensive performance of Nolan Thompson, who guarded forward Taylor Epley (19.8 ppg, 50% FG, 47% 3PT) and absolutely shut him down. When Epley ran around screens on the perimeter, Nolan stayed glued to his every step, usually stopping the pass altogether, and other times forcing a bad shot or a reset. When Epley went into the post, Nolan fronted him every time and the pass almost never came. Epley finished the game with 4 points (1-6 FG), 2 rebounds, 0 assists, and 3 turnovers in 35 minutes of play. The fact that Nolan can do this against a forward like Epley despite a height and size disadvantage (similar to Matt Vadas, on whom Thompson had the same effect), as well as against top point guards in the conference who are far quicker and smaller, is unbelievable. He is a special player and it’s hard to imagine a better perimeter defender will ever come through the program. (Note: Nolan was given a rest once in the game, after Epley checked out. Less than a minute after Nolan sat down, Epley was sent back into the game. Nolan got to the scorer’s table in time to come back in the game before the ball was passed in, and he never sat again. Again, special.)
James Jensen’s play also deserves recognition. He contributed 12 points (4-8 FG, 4-4 FT) on offense and was terrific on defense, forcing turnovers, hedging screens, covering ground quickly, and playing the best of any Middlebury forward against Mayer down low. Jensen brings intensity to big games, as we saw at Wesleyan, and it comes along with a dangerous combination of hustle, length, and athleticism on defense, as well as an ever-developing offensive game. He played starter minutes (31) today, as we predicted/hoped, and it would be surprising if that didn’t continue in big games down the road.
Finally, a reminder that Keene State (Tuesday night, Pepin) should not be overlooked. They beat Middlebury last year and can do it again. Hopefully we will have a post up previewing the challenges that the Owls present by Tuesday.