Men's Basketball: Jeffs escape Pioneer Classic with two wins

In the second half of last week’s home victory over Clark University, co-captain Ray Corrigan ’05 landed awkwardly while attempting a lay-up and sustained an injury that will force him to miss the remainder of the season. This harsh and sudden blow is particularly difficult to bear since it comes so early in Corrigan’s senior season, and because Corrigan is such an integral part of this team. As co-captain and starting point guard, Ray Corrigan has been a team leader both on and off the court for the Jeffs and figured to be a critical player in Amherst’s quest to make a return trip to the Final Four in Salem, Va. this spring.

“I’m really sad for Ray [Corrigan], I feel terrible for him,” said Head Coach Dave Hixon ’75. “But I don’t feel terrible for our team. Our team has to be able to step up and meet this challenge.”

Amherst hardly looked impressive in its first outing without Corrigan in the starting lineup, barely getting by a weaker team in overtime. On Friday, the Jeffs traveled to Westfield State College to take on the Owls in the first round of the Pioneer Valley Classic. Coming into the game with a 1-3 mark, Westfield State did not figure to pose much of a threat to the eighth-ranked Jeffs, but the Amherst offense clearly struggled without its floor general. Hixon’s squad was held to a 30 percent field goal percentage (9-30) and just 25 points in the first period, making it one of the worst halves for Amherst-in terms of offensive production-in recent memory.

Point guard Andrew Olson ’08 received his first collegiate start in only his fourth game for Amherst, but two quick fouls forced the rookie to take an early seat on the bench. Hixon then called on both Keith Zalaski ’06 and Mike Salerno ’07-two players who have not seen significant playing time thus far during their respective Amherst careers-to man the critical point guard position. Unfortunately, neither Zalaski nor Salerno could jumpstart a stagnant Amherst offensive attack in the first half as the Jeffs struggled against an aggressive pressure defense.

At the start of the second half, Amherst found itself trailing by 10, 35-25, and the deficit quickly swelled to 18 on the strength of an 11-0 Owl run. But just as defeat seemed certain, Amherst started to find its rhythm on offense. The Jeffs orchestrated a 22-7 run to put them right back in the game.

Senior co-captain Andrew Schiel, who finished with a career-high 28 points, shouldered much of the offensive burden for the Jeffs, but credit must also be given to Zalaski, who stepped up his play in the second half and helped his team break down the Westfield press. Indeed, it was a Zalaski three-pointer that capped Amherst’s comeback, knotting the score at 65 apiece with about five minutes left in the game.

But with only a dozen or so ticks left on the game clock and Westfield back up by three, it looked as if Amherst’s valiant comeback would all be for naught until Russell Lee ’05 connected on a clutch three-ball to send the game into overtime.

Momentum was clearly with the visiting team heading into the extra session, and an early three pointer by Schiel gave the Jeffs a lead that they would not relinquish. Thanks largely to Schiel’s stellar 28-point performance and Zalaski’s improved play at the point, Amherst was able to escape with an 87-82 victory over Westfield. The Jeffs completed the Pioneer Valley Classic with a solid 71-58 win over Western New England College (WNEC). Amherst’s unsettled point guard situation was far less of a factor against the Golden Bears. “They don’t press, which gave our point guards a chance to bring the ball up the court and get in the flow of the game,” explained Hixon.

Amherst built up a 37-25 lead at the half, but WNEC hung around for most of the second. The Golden Bears actually pulled within five points, 57-52, with 5:41 left to play, but Amherst went on a 5-0 run, capped by junior John Casnocha’s fifth three-pointer of the game, to secure the win. Casnocha led the Jeffs with a game-high 19 points. John Bedford ’06 was the only other Jeff to finish in double figures; Bedford scored 11 points against WNEC despite shooting just 1-11 from the field.

Olson and Zalaski split time at the point. Olson got the start and put forth a solid effort overall, collecting seven points and four assists in 24 minutes of work. Zalaski meanwhile scored nine points and notched one assist during his 16 minutes on the floor.

Schiel and Casnocha were selected to the all-tournament team. Amherst now has an 8-0 all-time record in the Pioneer Valley Classic, now in its fourth year.

Springfield College also finished the Classic unbeaten, topping Westfield State 81-67.

“We were fortunate to win [against Westfield], and I think we came back the next day and played good Amherst basketball, especially considering how fatigued we were after [playing Westfield] the night before,” said Hixon.

But even after the pair of wins this weekend, there are still serious questions at the point guard position with Corrigan sidelined for the rest of the year. Olson played well this weekend and will continue to have a place in Amherst’s starting lineup. However, Zalaski and Salerno have an opportunity to compete for significant playing time as Hixon and his able coaching staff are still evaluating their options. “We are doing this by committee for a while until we figure things out,” said Hixon.

While Amherst reconfigures its rotation, the schedule only gets harder from here. On Saturday, the Jeffs close out their first semester schedule with a home game against Colby-Sawyer College at 2:00 p.m.