Courtesy of serendipitous scheduling, during the season’s final weekend the conference’s top four teams, Amherst, Tufts, and Trinity and Bates Colleges, were all slated to do battle against one another in a fight for the regular-season NESCAC crown. Heading into the epic weekend, Amherst was undefeated in conference play, and Trinity and Tufts each had only a single NESCAC loss. A solid showing in both of their final two contests would give all three teams a legitimate shot at claiming the top spot in the NESCAC.
These games were supposed to feature great basketball and be a testament to the competitiveness of the conference; instead, they served as a showcase for Amherst’s now unquestioned dominance. The Jeffs won their two road games-against the second-and third-seeded teams in the conference-by a staggering average of 26.0 points per game. In both contests, the Jeffs built up a double-digit lead by halftime and increased that cushion in the final 20 minutes of regulation.
Despite being head-and-shoulders above their NESCAC peers in national polls, the NESCAC regular season title was up for grabs until the final weekend of conference play. With plenty on the line, the Jeffs were the only ones able to deliver.
“Naturally we want to win the conference and the Little Three; those are our goals every year,” said Head Coach Dave Hixon ’75. “But to accomplish them the way we have accomplished them this season is pretty remarkable in my mind.”
On Friday night, Amherst blasted Bates 78-59 in a game that belonged to senior co-captain Andrew Schiel. The big man from the Keystone State poured in a game-high 28 points, as Amherst took a commanding 42-26 lead at the half and never looked back.Schiel finished the game as the College’s eighth all-time leading scorer. Schiel has really stepped up his play in recent weeks, and his dominating performance against Bates solidified his status as the odds on favorite to win NESCAC Player of the Year honors.
Unfortunately for Amherst, Tufts was also victorious on Friday, beating Trinity and leaving home-court advantage to be determined in a Saturday matinee matchup in Medford. A Tufts victory would have given both the Jeffs and the Jumbos one loss, and Tufts would have prevailed on the head-to-head tiebreaker.
There was plenty of pre-game excitement leading up to this decisive NESCAC finale in Cousens Gym, but again, Amherst allowed for little suspense after tipoff. The visitors shot a scorching 65.4 percent from the field in the first half, including a 7-13 showing from three-point range, and jumped out to a 48-34 lead at the intermission. For good measure, the Jeffs tacked on an 8-1 run at the start of the second half to swell their lead to 21 and effectively end the game. Amherst led by as many as 37 points before the final buzzer sounded with the scoreboard showing a 94-61 advantage for the Jeffs.
Senior guard Russell Lee finished with a game-high 18 points in just 28 minutes of court time. Schiel and John Bedford ’06 joined him in double figures with 14 points apiece.
For the second time in three years, Amherst has earned the right to host the NESCAC Tournament. The last time Amherst hosted, in 2003, the Jeffs dropped a heartbreaker in the championship game to archrival Williams College. But this season, Amherst’s top billing in the NESCAC is significantly more pronounced. Not only did Amherst go a perfect 9-0 against its NESCAC competition this year (11-0 counting Amherst’s non-conference wins over Williams and Wesleyan University), but the Jeffs consistently won in dominating fashion. Amherst’s average margin of victory in NESCAC play was over 20 points a game. Only Bowdoin College and Trinity kept the Jeffs’ margin of victory under double digits. While anything can happen over the course of the next two weeks, Amherst must be considered a very healthy favorite to win its first NESCAC Tournament since 2002.
Amherst’s postseason begins this Saturday at 3 p.m. as the Jeffs host the eighth-seeded Polar Bears of Bowdoin in the first round of the NESCAC Tournament. Amherst struggled against Bowdoin in the regular-season showdown, rallying from a six-point halftime deficit to earn a 69-60 win.
“I think [Bowdoin] is one of the tougher teams in the bottom bracket even though their record doesn’t show it. They played us very tough earlier in the year,” said Hixon.
With 22 wins already, Amherst has almost certainly guaranteed itself at least an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament in March; however, in this part of the year any loss could theoretically end the season.