Jeffs smash Ephs, lord over Little Three

With this past week’s performance, the fourth-ranked Jeffs certainly seem to have distinguished themselves as the class of the NESCAC and the Northeast region more generally. But while Amherst already has accomplished much to be proud of, the Jeffs still have plenty of heavy lifting yet to do.

At 7-0, Amherst is clearly in commanding position in the NESCAC, but with two games yet to play, 6-1 teams Tufts University and Trinity College both could still overtake the Jeffs for the top spot in the conference. Amherst will close out its regular season schedule this weekend with a tough road trip to Bates College and Tufts-two of the top teams in the NESCAC. If Amherst beats Tufts, the Jeffs will automatically earn the top seed in the NESCAC Tournament; however, should the Jeffs stumble against the Jumbos, the conference championship game could very well be played outside of the friendly confines of LeFrak Gymnasium. Thus, the high-flying Jeffs need to be careful not to take anything for granted.

“We’ve got a lot of veterans on this team, and we know we haven’t done anything yet,” said John Bedford ’06. “We still need to play our best.”

But while there is still much work to be done, Amherst’s big win over Williams does merit particular attention. While Amherst had already sewn up its 2004-05 Little Three Championship prior to the Ephs’ arrival in the Pioneer Valley, there was still much to play for on Friday night. Amherst entered the game looking to maintain its one-game lead in the NESAC, while the struggling Williams squad was hoping to score a big win in order to turn its season around.

But while there was suspense leading up to the game, the outcome was all but decided shortly after tip-off thanks to the offensive heroics of Lee and a fantastic team defensive effort. Lee opened the scoring with a silky-smooth jumper from the wing, and Amherst never looked back. In the first 10 minutes of play, the Jeffs staked themselves to a 19-4 advantage, and that lead swelled to 34-13 with just two minutes to play before intermission. This is when the Russell Lee show kicked into high gear as the explosive guard single-handedly accounted for the half’s final seven points with deadly-and spectacular-three-point shooting.

First, with Eph stalwart Michael Graham seemingly playing tight defense, Lee pulled up unexpectedly for a shot a couple of feet beyond the three-point line. Not only did Lee connect on his deep shot, but a bump from Graham gave the sharpshooter a four-point play. The (over)capacity student section went wild, but Lee really got the crowd going a minute later. With five seconds left, Lee knocked down a three pointer from about 30 feet to give Amherst an all but insurmountable 41-13 halftime lead. LeFrak Gymnasium erupted as Eph Head Coach Dave Paulsen and his players could only look up at the scoreboard in disbelief.

At the end of the first half, Lee alone scored more points (14) than the Williams players combined. While Williams’ struggles on offense can be largely attributed to solid defense and poor shooting, John Casnocha ’06 deserves particular credit for shutting down Jeff nemesis Tucker Kain. Kain has torched Hixon and the Jeffs in games past, but Casnocha shut him down entirely in the first half, and held him to just four points the entire evening.

To their credit, the proud Ephs competed hard throughout the second half but were never able to generate enough offense to seriously threaten the Jeffs’ sizable lead.

Lee finished with a game-high 20 points, while Schiel and Bedford chipped in with 15 and 13 points, respectively. Andrew Newton was the only Williams player in double figures, as he accounted for 11 of Williams’ 45 points. The Ephs shot a dismal 1-11 from three-point range against the Jeffs in what was easily their worst loss in many years.

In the past, many good Amherst basketball teams suffered a letdown after the big Williams game, but this year’s experienced squad made sure to bring its “A” game the following afternoon against Middlebury. Proving that their first half performance against Williams was no fluke, the Jeffs jumped out to a 21-2 lead to start the game against Middlebury. Once again, the Amherst fans in attendance were treated to another contest that was all but over shortly after game time. Casnocha’s half court buzzer-beater gave Amherst a 62-32 edge heading into the final 20 minutes of play. Early in the second half, Hixon emptied his bench so the Jeff faithful could get a nice glimpse into the future of Amherst basketball on this day that was mostly reserved for recognizing those who have given so much to the program over the past four seasons.

While this season is far from over, the class of 2005 may well wind up as the winningest class in school history. Already, they have been to three Sweet 16s, two Elite Eights and a Final Four.

In a non-conference game played at LeFrak late last night, Amherst topped Lasell College 90-78 in a game that was closer than the score might indicate. Bedford led the way for Amherst with a career-high 31 points as Amherst survived a midweek letdown following this past weekend’s sensational play.