Men's Hoops: Jeffs skin Polar Bears, look ahead to NESCAC final four

Trailing by two with four minutes to play, Amherst was in unfamiliar territory; however, there was very little mystery as to what the Jeffs would try to do on offense. Amherst wasted little time on this critical possession in getting the ball inside to frontcourt stalwart Schiel-a likely choice for conference player of the year. Bowdoin was well prepared and had Schiel guarded tightly, but the senior was simply not to be denied. After missing his first layup attempt, Schiel collected the offensive rebound and made no mistake with his second effort, getting fouled in the process. Schiel’s subsequent free throw allowed the Jeffs to reclaim the lead-a lead which they would not relinquish.

Although Schiel’s three-point play only gave the Jeffs a one-point lead, it also had the important effect of reenergizing the Amherst players and fans. A minute later, Casnocha drained a clutch three to put Amherst up 65-61 before Lee answered a Bowdoin field goal with a three-pointer of his own to give the hosts a seemingly comfortable 68-63 advantage with just 1:21 to play in regulation.

However, just as earlier in the game, every time the Jeffs appeared to pull away, the feisty Polar Bears found a way to keep themselves within striking distance. With just 15 seconds remaining, Bowdoin’s Kyle Petrie hoisted up a rushed three that hit squarely off the front of the rim yet still managed to find its way through the hoop, cutting Amherst’s margin to 70-68.

Tim Gilbride’s well-coached team quickly put Schiel at the charity stripe for a one-and-one opportunity. Amherst’s season was once again on the line.

Adding to the suspense, Schiel’s first free throw attempt was off the mark and briefly fell into the possession of Petrie. However, Bowdoin’s star player was unable to corral the rebound and watched helplessly as the ball rolled out of bounds.

Having lost possession, Bowdoin was once again obliged to foul in order to keep their season alive. This time, John Bedford was sent to the line, but the junior from Ridgewood, N.J. did little to keep Bowdoin’s hopes of a semifinal berth alive as he calmly sank both of his shots from the charity stripe to give his team a decisive, two-possession edge.

Olson hit two final free throws at the end of regulation to fix the score at 74-68.

After obliterating its NESCAC competition in the regular season, Amherst appeared to be rather sluggish for most of this quarterfinal tilt with Bowdoin. The Jeffs managed to score only 14 points in the game’s opening 10 minutes and trailed by as many as six points in the first half.

Hixon’s squad did rally to end of the first half, however, as the Jeffs were able to tack on 11 points in the final 2.5 minutes before intermission to take a seven-point lead heading into the half.

Bowdoin quickly erased its deficit at the start of the second half, and neither team led by more than five points during the game’s final 10 minutes.

In a game that was hotly contested throughout, Hixon relied heavily on his starting five. All five players finished the game in double figures, with Bedford leading the pack with 18 points. Point guard Olson again continued to impress with his poise and game management ability. The first-year phenom played the entire game despite having battled an illness earlier in the week and finished with 11 points and four assists.

With the win, Amherst (23-1) set a new school record for consecutive wins with 16. In the process, the class of 2005-comprised of Schiel, Lee, and Ray Corrigan-has now won 96 games over the past four years, also a College record.

The top four seeds in the tournament all survived the opening round, so Amherst is next slated to host Trinity College in the semifinal round this Saturday. Trinity proved to be Amherst’s toughest NESCAC competition in the regular season, as the Jeffs eked out an 85-82 win in Hartford on Jan. 15. This is the second consecutive year that these two teams will meet in the NESCAC semifinals. Last season, Amherst outlasted the Bantams, 87-78, thanks to the unconscious shooting of Lee, who finished the game with a career-high 27 points.

Tufts University and Bates College will tangle in the other semifinal, and the championship game will be played Sunday at noon in LeFrak Gymnasium, regardless of Amherst’s fate.

After beating Bowdoin, Amherst has all but assured itself of a spot in the NCAA Tournament, while the other three teams still alive in the NESCAC will almost certainly have to win the conference tournament in order to extend their seasons. But Coach Hixon is confident that his players will have no trouble in matching the intensity of the opposition even though they are the only team that could likely withstand another loss. “I don’t think everything revolves around the NCAA Tournament,” said Hixon. “Certainly, we are looking forward to that tournament, but we also want to win the NESCAC Tournament very much. We do not want to have to host a championship game that we are not playing in.”