The Jeffs went to Williams, the site of the tournament’s final two rounds, with a surge of confidence after handily defeating in the quarterfinals nearly two weeks ago. But Middlebury posed quite a challenge, especially since this game was not in the friendly confines of LeFrak Gymnasium. The Panthers, currently ranked third in the country, had already broken the Jeffs’ momentum once this year, snapping Amherst’s 21-game win streak on Feb. 11.
It seemed the Jeffs were well aware of their opponents at first, as they came out with a vengeance, reminding spectators why they went undefeated for the majority of the season. Taylor Barrise ’12 led the first half charge, scoring all 13 of his points in the first 20 minutes behind a three-of-four effort from three-point land. Amherst’s commanding lead swelled as large as 18 points in the frame, with the Jeffs thoroughly outplaying and out-hustling the Panthers. The Jeffs managed to take a 14-point advantage into halftime after co-captain Conor Meehan ’11 scored the team’s last four points in the first stanza.
Unfortunately for Amherst, the game turned out to be a tale of two halves. The Jeffs came out of the locker room and simply failed to execute their game plan, letting their shooting woes get the best of them. After posting a 48 percent field goal percentage in the first half, the Jeffs misfired on 14 of their 15 three point attempts in the second frame, a horrible turn of events that let the halftime slip away.
For all their struggles, the Jeffs still led by 10 with 8:15 to play, but the wheels continued to come off. With 3:08 to play, the Panthers had cut the Amherst lead to a mere two points, 61-59. The Jeffs could not find the basket in the last three minutes, as Middlebury tied the game at 61 with 1:49 to play and went on to score six more points before the final buzzer sounded, stunning the Jeffs with a 67-61 comeback victory. While the Panthers seized momentum in the final stages of the contest, the Jeffs had their chances, including one possession in which they missed all three shots they attempted.
Middlebury center Andrew Locke shut down the paint, recording a NESCAC-record seven blocks on the Jeffs. Meehan lead Amherst with 18 points, and Barrise and Peter Kaasila ’13 joined him in double figures with 13 and 12, respectively. After holding the edge on the boards at halftime by a 19-18 margin, the Jeffs were outrebounded by 12 in the second half, in spite of sophomore Willy Workman’s seven-board effort.
The defeat was especially bitter for the Jeffs, as they led for 39 of the 40 minutes – nearly 98 percent of the game – before succumbing to defeat. To make matters worse, the Panthers went on to defeat Williams on Sunday for the NESCAC crown, leaving the Jeffs to think what might have been had they not struggled in the second half.
Co-captain Kurt Bennett ’11 expressed frustration with the team’s late-game performance, saying that “I think being successful against teams like Middlebury and Williams really just comes down to finishing games out. We’ve held leads late in the game in all four matchups we’ve had against those teams, and just haven’t been able to execute down the stretch.”
Fortunately for the Jeffs, they received an at-large bid to compete in the NCAA Tournament. They will be competing against Skidmore College in the first round, with the Thoroughbreds making the first tournament appearance in their school’s history.
Bennett called the prospect of a tournament run “a challenge that should be our sole focus of attention from here on out.” The Jeffs will need to use that focus to rediscover their confidence if they plan to advance far against the best teams in the nation.