While junior standouts Steve Zieja, Pat Fitzsimons and Ryan Faulkner remain as the core of the team, Amherst has seen impressive results from its younger players with the emergence of John Donovan ’04, the return of Adam Harper ’04 from injury in the backcourt, and the development of freshman forward Andrew Schiel. But despite the Jeffs’ improvement and overall strong play during the month of January, Coach Dave Hixon’s team has thus far managed only a 2-2 NESCAC record due to one unfortunately timed weekend of lackluster play.
The winter break was highlighted by Amherst’s two victories over Little Three rivals Williams and Wesleyan University. Amherst managed a thrilling 72-70 overtime victory over archrival Williams on Jan. 12 and returned to LeFrak Gymnasium that Tuesday to topple a tough Wesleyan team 85-74. Unfortunately, these two games did not count in NESCAC standings.
In the Williams game, the Jeffs jumped out to an early lead, but the Ephs fought their way back into the game in the second half. At the end of the game, Williams guard Michael Crotty appeared to have the game-winning layup on his fingertips, but somehow the shot bounced around the rim and away from the basket, sending the game to overtime.
The end of overtime was even more exhilarating than the end of regulation. With 30 seconds remaining in the extra frame and the Jeffs down three, Faulkner took control of the ball. While the capacity crowd at LeFrak expected Amherst to attempt a game-tying three point attempt, Faulkner caught his defenders off guard by driving the lane and throwing an alley-oop to Fitzsimons.
Amherst, down one, immediately fouled a Williams player on the inbounds pass. When Williams botched both free throw attempts, the feisty Amherst squad had 11 seconds and a golden opportunity to steal one of the great basketball games of the storied rivalry.
Faulkner once again took possession of the ball and drove to the hoop. Although his floater hit off the back iron, Fitzsimmons was able to rebound for a 71-70 Amherst lead.
The Ephs committed a turnover while inbounding the ball and were forced to send Harper to the line. Harper hit one of two free throws to give Amherst a two point lead with two seconds to go. But amazingly, Williams was able to get a good look at a 14-foot shot from the baseline as time expired. The shot appeared to be going in, but rattled off the rim, giving the Jeffs a much deserved 72-70 win. Donovan led the resilient Jeffs with a career-high 22 points.
The Jeffs continued their strong start in Little III action with an 85-74 home victory over Wesleyan the following Tuesday. The Cardinals’ team features several quality playmakers, including preseason All-American Leo Jones and Kanem Johnson, but a season-high 30-point effort by Zieja and an overall strong defensive game helped to keep the NESCAC’s highest scoring team at bay.
Unfortunately, Amherst suffered a mental letdown heading into their first weekend of NESCAC play. The Jeffs traveled to Williamstown on Jan. 18 to play in their first league game. Amherst entered the tilt having won seven of their last eight games against Williams, but they were never really in this one. The squad shot a dismal 24.6 percent from the field and went for one 11-minute interval with a single field goal. Williams dominated all the way, winning the game 74-45. Amherst’s 45 point performance on offense was their worst of the season.
“Prior to the second Williams game, we were playing great and we were in a great situation, being ranked regionally and nationally,” said Fitzsimons. “After we beat Williams the first time, I think we sort of felt invincible. We barely beat them, but somehow it made us feel as if we couldn’t lose. We expected to win, but I don’t think we were really ready to play like they were.”
Amherst’s poor play continued the next day when they traveled to Vermont to take on a relatively weak Middlebury outfit. Middlebury jumped all over Amherst early and survived a late Amherst run to pull out a 76-69 win. “Historically, we never play well in the game right after Williams, regardless of whether we win or lose,” said Hixon.
Despite playing a strong month of basketball, the Jeffs found themselves 0-2 in the conference, including a loss to Middlebury, a team that most of Amherst’s NESCAC rivals will likely beat.
The Lord Jeffs were able to put themselves back on solid ground the week after the Williams debacle. Amherst first disposed of Lasell College, 86-75, on Jan. 22. The game was highlighted by the fantastic play of Fitzsimons, who posted his first career triple-double, amassing 12 points, 11 boards and an astonishing 10 blocked shots. Amherst’s victory over Lasell allowed the team to regain some confidence heading into the second weekend of NESCAC play, during which Amherst played host to Bates and Tufts.
On Jan. 25, Amherst notched its first NESCAC win by besting cellar-dweller Bates 92-69. The Jeffs continued their hot play into the next day’s game against Tufts University. Midway through the first half, Amherst found themselves winning 30-5. Amherst maintained a comfortable lead throughout the rest of the game, surviving a sloppy second half of play to win 86-71, evening out their NESCAC record at 2-2.
On Saturday, Amherst will host Trinity College, a team considered to be one of the best in NESCAC. The Jeffs should have a better idea of where they stand after this crucial contest.
Over the weekend of Dec. 7, Amherst participated in the Pioneer Valley Hoop Classic. The Jeffs won both games they played in, defeating Western New England College 75-60 and Westfield St. 75-64, but because of the tournament’s classic format, no champion was declared.
On Dec. 11, Amherst routed Worcester St. 74-47, giving Hixon his 400th career victory.
Following a long break, Amherst participated in the Bahama House Classic at Embry-Riddle University in Daytona Beach, Fla. on New Year’s Day. Amherst opened the tournament against the hosts, a highly ranked NAIA Division II school. Amherst hung tough with the heavily favored opponents before losing by a final score of 93-86. Amherst closed out the tournament with a convincing 78-62 victory over Berea (KY). Amherst returned from Florida to beat Colby-Sawyer the following week, 86-62.