Over the weekend of March 12, Amherst earned its first Final Four appearance by posting a convincing 92-74 win over New Jersey City University in the Sweet 16 and an equally impressive 82-70 win over Franklin & Marshall College in the Elite Eight, all on F&M’s home court. The victory set up an unprecedented semifinal showdown against Williams the following weekend in Salem, Va. The contest was hyped all week long as the most important game in the storied rivalry of these two great schools, and when tip-off finally came last Friday evening, both teams ensured that the game lived up to its billing.
If the Jeffs were at all nervous about making their first Final Four appearance, they sure didn’t show it as Amherst connected on seven of its first eight field goal attempts. Tri-captain John Donovan ’04 led this early charge by nailing back-to-back three-pointers. Amherst tallied 14 points in the first four minutes and built a 19-12 lead, which would be the biggest margin of the game for either team. Amherst, however, was unable to keep Williams at bay and the Ephs eventually tied the score at 33 when Chuck Abba tipped in an errant three-point attempt with 5:42 to play. Williams then outscored Amherst 10-6 to take a 43-39 lead into halftime. Despite shooting a little better than 54 percent from the field, including a 6-11 showing from three-point land, Amherst still trailed at intermission. Williams Head Coach Dave Paulsen’s post-game comparison of this game to a prize fight certainly seemed to capture the level of competition displayed by both NESCAC schools.
The two rivals continued to trade blows in the second half. Amherst, for its part, was led by tri-captain Adam Harper ’04 and key reserves Russell Lee ’05 and John Bedford ’06. Harper’s performance was particularly impressive, as the three-year starter almost seemed to be single-handedly keeping the Jeffs in the game for stretches during the second half. Early in the final period, Harper went on a run where he accounted for 10 consecutive points, two of which resulted from a crowd pleasing dunk, courtesy of a Tucker Kain turnover.
Harper’s heroics sparked an 18-6 Amherst run which included an eight-point contribution from the hot hand of Russell Lee and was punctuated by a mid-range Harper jumper. This run gave the Jeffs a 64-58 advantage with just over 10 minutes to play. Amherst had several chances to extend this lead, but the Jeffs were unable to pull away.
After almost two minutes of action without any points scored on either side, Williams’ All-American point guard, Michael Crotty, cut the Amherst lead in half with an old-fashioned three-point play. Soon thereafter, Abba tied the score with a three-point play of his own.
Over the next three minutes, the Jeffs and Ephs matched each other step for step, as the game was knotted at 69, 73, 75 and 77 points apiece. A Jaris Cole put-back following a Crotty airball gave Williams a 79-77 lead. After working the ball around, Williams seemed to get three-point specialist Abba an open look at the basket, but Harper demonstrated his defensive skill by nimbly closing the distance between himself and Abba and blocking the shot. Lee collected the loose ball and seemed to have a cutting Harper open at the other end of the floor, but Cole intercepted the Lee offering at mid-court to give Williams another chance to make it a two-possession game. The defending national champs made no mistake with this reprieve, and the Ephs went up by four with just over a minute to play.
Lee drained a floater down the lane to cut the Williams lead back down to two, but with only 40 seconds remaining, the Jeffs were forced to foul. Crotty made both his free-throws, but Bedford responded at the other end with two free-throws of his own. With 16.1 seconds to play, the Jeffs sent Michael Graham to the line. Graham’s first free-throw hit the rim and then the backboard before going in. It was just that kind of a night for Williams. Graham sunk his second free-throw to put the Ephs up 85-81. Tucker Kain hit a late free-throw to seal Williams’ hard-earned 86-81 victory.
In his postgame press conference, Head Coach Dave Hixon ’75 was hard pressed to find any fault with his team’s valiant performance. “Our guys played a great game tonight,” Hixon said. “They’re [Williams] the defending national champions and they did a lot of things right, but I’m really proud of our guys and the way they fought.”
“I thought our kids played a wonderful game and I thought a couple of times we were one basket from getting over the hump,” Hixon added.
Coach Paulsen was equally impressed with the caliber of basketball that the two NESCAC schools displayed in Salem. “We tip our hat to Amherst,” said Paulsen. “Now people on the national scene can see how special and intense our rivalry is.”
The difference in the game was Williams’ ability to get offensive rebounds in critical situations. Williams had 17 offensive rebounds, compared to just nine for Amherst. Despite the Williams win, however, Adam Harper was the most dominant player on the court. Harper finished with a game-high 26 points-18 of which came in the second half-saving his finest performance for the most critical time.
Lee and Bedford contributed 16 and 14 points respectively, while Donovan added 12. Senior tri-captain Tim Jones, who has traditionally had tremendous games against Williams, was limited to five points after aggravating a foot injury which he had courageously played through all season.
Oddly, Amherst’s season did not technically end on Friday night and the Jeffs had to come back the next day to play John Carroll University in a consolation game.
John Carroll’s unique brand of basketball-the Blue Streaks feature a press defense and legitimately go 10 deep, often replacing all five players with a single substitution-gave Amherst plenty of difficulty. The emotionally and physically exhausted Jeffs simply could not run with the fresher John Carroll squad and lost 96-85 despite a gutsy late run by Amherst to try and close the deficit.
The game did give the Amherst faithful one last opportunity to see its beloved class of 2004 in action. Adam Harper, John Donovan, Tim Jones and Don Quinn are the winingest class in school history with 95 wins. The quartet has won two NESCAC Championships and has participated in four NCAA Tournaments. Harper and Donovan have been mainstays in Coach Hixon’s starting lineup for the past three seasons, while Jones had a breakout season this year.
“This class is really remarkable,” said Hixon. “When we graduated three really good players last year, everyone assumed we’d suffer. The later we got in the season and the bigger the games were, it was always Jones, Harper and Donovan coming up big for us. They’re the heart and soul of our program and we can’t thank them enough.”
UW-Steven’s Point went on to win the National Championship by beating Williams 84-82 on a Jason Kalsow buzzer-beater.