Although they ended up losing by 24 points, Southern Vermont did not let their heavily favored adversaries simply walk over them. Indeed, the Mountaineers played the Lord Jeffs close throughout the first half, even taking a few small leads, before heading into the locker room down only 36-32.
Not only did Southern Vermont match Amherst on the hardwood in the first half, but they also matched their hosts in the stands. At times it seemed as if all 500 students for Southern Vermont were in attendance in LeFrak Gymnasium, as a sizable and enthusiastic contingent of Mountaineer fans traveled to Amherst to support their team during its first-ever NCAA Tournament run. The spirited back-and-forth between the rival student sections was almost as exciting as the game itself.
The second half was noticeably more one-sided both in the stands and on the court, as Head Coach Dave Hixon ’75 made a few adjustments at the break.
In the first half, the Mountaineers were collapsing down on the post, so in the second half, the Jeffs made a concerted effort to get good looks on the perimeter. The adjustment paid off as Amherst connected on eight of 15 second-half three-point attempts.
The Jeffs broke the game wide open in the second half by beginning the frame with a championship-caliber 25-7 run, powered primarily by a 4-5 Jeff shooting performance from downtown. By the end of the eight-minute run, the Amherst student body was serenading their stunned opposition with chants of “We’ve got Harper,” in recognition of the stellar play of Adam Harper ’04, who hit two of his incredible five three-pointers during this stretch. Harper finished with a game-high 21 points.
“It was the last home game for the season, and I think that the fans had more fun at this game than any other game all season,” said Harper. “It’s always fun for the players and the fans when you have two student sections going back and forth with each other.”
Southern Vermont simply could not compete with the sharpshooting Jeffs in the second half and so a once close game turned into a rout.
Another player worthy of praise Saturday was reserve forward Andrew Schiel ’06E. Coming off a disappointing NESCAC Tournament, Schiel reminded Jeff fans what a true difference he can make. Schiel shot 3-4 from beyond the arc and finished the game with 19 points. Not only did Schiel make significant contributions to the box score, he also successfully rallied his teammates and the crowd at several critical points in the game. Schiel’s return to form bodes well for the Jeffs.
Senior tri-captains Steve Zieja and Ryan Faulkner had nice games as well. Zieja finished with 17 points, and Faulkner had a game-high 11 assists while garnering only a single turnover.
On Friday, Amherst will play the University of Rochester at Williams College, who is hosting this sectional, with the winner of that match-up taking on the winner of the region’s other Sweet 16 contest between Williams and Hamilton College the following day. Rochester returns all five starters from their Final Four squad of a year ago and will doubtlessly provide the Jeffs with serious opposition. Rochester boasts a strong frontcourt game, so it will be strength against strength as Zieja and senior tri-captain Pat Fitzsimons will be responsible for stifling this threat.
“If we can play a full 40 minutes with the same intensity and passion that we played with in the second half against Southern Vermont, then I think we give ourselves a great chance of going to the Final Four,” said Harper.