“That was just unbelievable,” said Head Coach Dave Hixon ’75. “You hope you shoot your free throws that well.”
The loss marked an end to the playing careers of longtime Jeff stalwarts, tri-captains Steve Zieja ’03, Pat Fitzsimons ’03 and Ryan Faulkner ’03. Although the trio was unable to fulfill its ambition of a national championship, the Class of 2003 leaves Amherst as the winningest in school history, capping their playing careers by leading the Jeffs to their second Elite Eight appearance.
Meanwhile, Williams, whose only loss of the season came courtesy of Amherst earlier in the season, went on to win the national championship the following week, the first time ever that a NESCAC school has accomplished such a feat. Williams defeated the College of Wooster 74-72 in overtime in the national semifinal game and squeaked by Gustavus Adolphus College 67-65 to win the national title.
Having played three close games against one another earlier in the season, both Amherst and Williams undoubtedly entered their Elite Eight showdown expecting a close contest.
The first half lived up to these expectations as both teams struggled to find their offense in a back-and-forth game. Williams took a 36-34 lead heading into the second half, but the Ephs saved their best for the second half.
Williams increased its lead early in the second half, but it was not until they inserted their “small” lineup, which gave Amherst fits in the NESCAC Championship game, that Williams truly dominated the game. The Jeffs tried to match the Ephs by going small as well, substituting Frank Perry ’04 for Steve Zieja ’03, but nothing could stop the Ephs’ three-point barrage.
Five different Ephs hit multiple three-pointers during the course of the game in an impressive display of team shooting. Amherst simply could not keep up. Williams’ lead did not sink below double digits after the 13:48 mark of the second half.
“I thought we were on them for seven [of the Ephs’ second half threes] so they weren’t freebies,” said Hixon.
“Amherst is the best defensive team we’ve played against, but we forced them to collapse on defense and then kicked the ball out for three-pointers,” said Williams Head Coach Dave Paulsen. “We made some tough shots.”
Amherst struggled somewhat on the offensive end of the ball as well, due in part to a stifling Eph defense. Zieja only attempted four field goals during the game and finished with just six points.
At times, Andrew Schiel ’06E seemed like a one-man show for the Jeffs on offense during the second half. Schiel finished with 22 points in just 17 minutes of action. Fitzsimons had a nice game as well, finishing with 18 points and 10 rebounds.
“It’s a bit too soon to take pride in our season, but in a week or two I’m sure we will step back, look at some of the things we have done and be very proud,” said Zieja at the postgame press conference.
Amherst defeated the University of Rochester, a Final Four team last year, in the Round of 16 by a score of 74-68. Amherst battled back from an early 19-6 deficit thanks in part to the spectacular play of Fitzsimons.
Fitzsimons finished the game with 16 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocks. The Jeff big man was named to the All-Sectional team for his two-day performance.