In an interview two weeks ago, head coach of men’s basketball David Hixon ’75 said that while he thought getting into the NCAA tournament would be difficult, “If you let us in, watch out.” Hixon and his team have seemingly cleared the first obstacle by winning the NESCAC tournament over the weekend and booking a spot in the bracket with a top seed. After beating the 16th-ranked Williams Ephs in the semifinals and the eighth-ranked host Hamilton Continentals in the championship, Amherst has completed phase one of Hixon’s two-part plan. All that’s left is to sit back and see how far the Mammoths can go.
After beating fifth-seeded Wesleyan at home last week in the quarterfinals, Amherst traveled to Clinton, New York to face off against third-seeded Williams with a spot in the finals on the line. The Mammoths had already topped the Ephs twice during the season, but by a cumulative total of just six points. The two wins gave Amherst the mental edge as sophomore forward Fru Che explained.
“We definitely had a lot of confidence going in. We know how they play and what they do well; it was just a matter of executing the game plan,” Che said. “We can always expect a war with them, and that’s what we got in the semifinal game.”
The matchup was a battle on the hardwood, as neither team shot better than 40 percent from the field. The player of the game was sophomore Grant Robinson, who led the way with a career-high 32 points on 11-22 shooting, including 8-9 from the free throw line. Robinson got to the basket at will, thanks to his lethal dribble and crafty finishing abilities.
On the defensive end of the court, Joe Schneider ’19 was a brick wall in the paint as he swatted seven shots and snagged eight boards while also adding 10 points, including the go-ahead free throws with under two minutes remaining. Guard Devonn Allen ’22 was second on the team in scoring with 11 points, including three makes from the three-point range. Che contributed 10 points and a game-high four assists and played tenacious defense that forced the Ephs to shoot just 38.7 percent from the field, including 26.3 percent from beyond the arc. When all was said and done, Amherst walked away with a 74-69 victory and a spot in the NESCAC title game on Sunday against Hamilton.
The rematch between the Mammoths and the Continentals was set for high noon at Hamilton’s Scott Field House. In their first meeting, just 11 days earlier, Hamilton had escaped with a narrow 81-77 victory by hitting six free throws in the final minute. Despite the loss, Che said that the Mammoths’ belief in their team didn’t waver at all.
“I felt really confident in us. We didn’t play our best game against them last time, but we knew what we had to do to fix that,” he said. “We had a tough road against a lot of tough teams, so we were determined to finish the job.”
Che backed up his talk by pouring in a game-high 16 points on 6-13 shooting, matching Robinson’s 16 points on the day. Che also grabbed eight boards and blocked two shots, both second on the team to Schneider’s 10 rebounds and three blocks. Allen had another excellent game, scoring 14 points on just nine shots, and senior C.J. Bachmann chipped in 10 points off of the bench. The game proved the old adage “offense wins games, but defense wins championships,” as Hamilton shot just 31.7 percent on the day and scored a season-low 56 points, almost 30 points less than their average points per game. The 62-56 victory clinched the eighth NESCAC title for the Mammoths, the most in conference history, and the team’s first since 2014.
After the game, Che spoke about his hopes for the rest of the season. “No one expected us to make it this far, especially in NESCAC play, so I think that we’re capable of going far in the tournament if we stick to our style of basketball and play hungry.”
What lies ahead for Amherst remains to be seen. The selection show on Monday put the team as the top seed in their quadrant, and booked them a trip to the University of Rochester, where they will take on Rosemont College who received an at-large bid. This will be Rosemont’s first trip to the NCAA tournament after putting together a 15-12 season.
With an excellent mix of underclassmen Che, Robinson, Allen and Garrett Day ’21, and veteran leadership with upperclassmen Schneider, Bachmann, and Josh Chery ’20, this Amherst team has a great chance to make some noise at the tournament.
Or, as Hixon would say, “Watch out.”