At the beginning of conference play, every team shared the same goal: play on the final Sunday of NESCAC play. Four teams — Trinity, Middlebury, Williams and Amherst — have a chance to do that with a win today.
#5 TRINITY @ #1 AMHERST
In perhaps the best NESCAC game of the year so far, Trinity beat Bowdoin 71-67 in triple overtime in the NESCAC Quarterfinals a week ago to secure a place in the final four. Jaquann Starks led the Bantams with 21 points on 8-14 shooting (4-8 from beyond the arc) and Shay Ajayi and George Papadeas both logged double doubles en route to a wild victory. Trinity held Bowdoin below 34 percent from the field and, more critically, 6-34 (17.6 percent) shooting from beyond the arc. The Bantams will need a similar defensive effort and performance from Starks, as well as a considerable edge on the offensive glass — only Bates pulled down more offensive rebounds — to pull off a major upset of the Lord Jeffs today. Amherst, meanwhile, survived another scare from Colby, pulling away down the stretch, but needed the better part of 35 minutes to separate themselves from the Mules. Amherst’s wings Tom Killian and Connor Green led the way offensively, combining to score 40 points between them. Freshman center David Green had one of the best performances of his young career, scoring 10 points while pulling down 15 rebounds and blocking four shots. Aaron Toomey, meanwhile, struggled from the floor shooting just 3-14 (1-7 from three) and picked up four fouls. Depth continues to be an issue for the Lord Jeffs, who received just six points off the bench.
Last Time Around: Amherst 67-Trinity 61, Hartford, January 25
Trinity provided the mold for beating Amherst the first time the teams met, though Amherst ultimately won the game. The Bantams held the Lord Jeffs below 40 percent shooting from the floor while running them off the three-point line (7-22) and forcing David Hixon’s bench to log more minutes than he would prefer. Amherst’s talented forward Ben Pollack, who will miss the rest of the season with an injury, played 22 minutes off the bench in that game as Toomey and Kalema both got in foul trouble, limiting them to 24 and 25 minutes, respectively. On the other end, Starks and Ajayi carried the Bantam offense, combining for 35 points on 27 shots. As a team, Trinity shot just 32.8 percent from the floor, but augmented that by shooting 35 percent from beyond the arc and 76 percent from the line.
Keys to Playing on Sunday:
Trinity, the league’s most physical team, will have to knock the Lord Jeffs out of rhythm and off their spots offensively. The Bantams play to the whistle on both ends of the floor and the physical nature of their play often dictates how the game will be officiated. If Trinity can frustrate Amherst into mistakes and early foul trouble, Trinity can hang with the Lord Jeffs to the wire. The Bantams will need efficient offensive performances from Starks and Ajayi and to make plays down the stretch. For Amherst, staying out of foul trouble with a thin bench and back-to-back games will be especially important, but as long as they are close the Lord Jeffs will know that one of their patented runs at home can throttle an opponent. They’ve done it enough times before that even if Trinity controls this game most of the way, Amherst will likely have the final say.
#3 MIDDLEBURY vs. #2 WILLIAMS
The Panthers and Ephs meet for the fifth consecutive NESCAC tournament today. Both teams endured scares in the quarterfinal round, Middlebury nearly forfeiting a 22-point lead to Hamilton in the second half, while Williams came a Hunter Sabety free throw from going one-and-done in the tournament and needed overtime to overcome the Jumbos last week. For Middlebury, Hunter Merryman had 17 points on 5-6 shooting, while Joey Kizel added 14 points, four assists and six rebounds. The Panthers scored 46 first-half points while shooting 59 percent from the floor and came firing out of the gates in the second half to open a 22-point advantage off a thunderous Kizel-to-Dylan-Sinnickson alley-oop. But then Middlebury appeared to become complacent and nearly allowed the Continentals to make an historic comeback. A big and-one from Jack Roberts and Kizel free throws eventually put the game out of reach, but playing 40 minutes has consistently been a problem for the Panthers.
Last Time They Met: Williams 64-Middlebury 61, Middlebury, January 31
Middlebury dominated Williams out of the gates, shooting 50 percent from the floor while holding the Ephs to 34 percent shooting to take a 41-25 halftime lead. The Panthers extended the lead to 18 early in the second half, but then watched as Williams chipped away at the lead, ultimately taking its first lead with 39 seconds left as Middlebury failed to execute down the stretch. Part of Middlebury’s struggles were due to a shift defensively from the Ephs, who played their patented 2-3 zone in the first half, but switched to man in the second half and had far more success slowing down Middlebury’s offense. Joey Kizel struggled uncharacteristically, going 1-9 from the floor and Taylor Epley scored 11 second-half points to spur the Ephs’ comeback.
Keys to Playing Sunday:
Middlebury has executed its sets very effectively against the zone, particularly when Dylan Sinnickson is on the floor and can get good looks from beyond the arc. The first time these teams played, Middlebury was coming off an eight-day layoff and Jeff Brown got creative attacking the Ephs zone. Coach Brown consistently placed point guard Jake Brown in the middle of the 2-3 at the foul line, where the freshman would catch, draw defenders and then dish to his teammates on the perimeter for open looks from beyond the arc. Brown played 21 minutes off the bench and scored seven points to go along with five rebounds and five assists. Sinnickson and Merryman were the main beneficiaries of the move, which gave them open looks in rhythm from deep. On the other end, Middlebury was consistently victimized by the Ephs’ range as Williams shot 6-11 from beyond the arc in the second half. The Panthers were particularly susceptible off of out of bounds plays in the 3-2 zone. The zone (which a lot of teams employ defensively with the ball under their own basket) is designed to allow opposing teams to catch away from the hoop, but to stop easy layups off of well-run screens in the paint. Against Williams, layups would have been preferable as the Ephs found Epley and Duncan Robertson as the safety man — and admittedly a good distance behind the three-point arc — who would use the space to get a clean look from three. When Middlebury did effectively close out on the first pass, Williams employed good ball movement to get looks for Epley, Robinson and Mike Greenman anyway.
Matchups to Watch
The Ephs and Panthers have a number of interesting head-to-head matchups on both ends of the floor. Michael Mayer and Jack Roberts have squared off a number of times with mixed results. Roberts has enjoyed the best season of his career on both ends of the floor and will have a chance to go one-on-one with Mayer, at least to begin the game. On the perimeter, James Jensen will likely guard Robinson once again. Alongside Tom Killian, Jensen is perhaps the only natural defender for a guy like Duncan Robinson and demonstrated so the first time these teams played, limiting Robinson to just four shots, blanketing him across the court. Robinson still managed to score 10 points, a testament to his tremendous shooting range and absurd efficiency, but Jensen is as good an antidote to the freshman phenom as there is. Another battle to keep an eye on is former high school teammates and good friends Merryman and Daniel Wohl. Merryman got the better of Wohl the last time these teams played, but Wohl and Williams have beaten the Panthers three straight times, including last year’s NESCAC semifinals when Wohl burned Middlebury for 19 points off the bench shortly after returning from illness. Finally, Middlebury and Williams have a pair of electric guards in Greenman and Brown who have made big contributions as the season has progressed and could spend a considerable amount of time going head-to-head in this game. The return of Hayden Rooke-Ley will diminish some of Greenman’s minutes, but there was no bigger player for the Ephs down the stretch against Tufts as Greenman made back-to-back baskets to give Williams a lead in the final minute.
It May Come Down To: Which team has to play more zone
Both of these teams were burned when they played zone in late January and for Middlebury, going zone would likely mean that Roberts picks up early fouls or struggles to contain Mayer without help. The Panthers were effective earlier in the year playing their extended zone against teams, but Williams has too much firepower offensively from the perimeter to consistently close out on shooters. On the other end, Dylan Sinnickson has proven to be a one-man zone-breaker all season long, but the Panthers have executed especially well of late against the zone and had their best half of the season against the Ephs — and a similar performance against Bowdoin — when they tried to slow Middlebury with the zone. While both boast an arsenal of perimeter weapons, the Roberts-Mayer matchup on the block will set the tone for everything that happens around it. If Roberts takes the upper hand on both ends, Middlebury will find themselves playing on Sunday.