Middlebury saw a comfortable 22-point lead over Hamilton dwindle into a late, one-possession advantage as the host hung on for an 81-77 NESCAC quarterfinal win at Pepin Gym. Middlebury, the third seed in the conference tourney, awaits the results of three other NESCAC contests to decipher its next opponent and location, while Hamilton (14-11) ends its season.
To start the first half, both teams shot particularly well as the teams exchanged leads seven times in the first five-plus minutes. Middlebury opened the game hitting 5-7 from the field including four three-pointers, while Hamilton connected on 6-8 from the field. Hunter Merryman knocked down a trey for Middlebury at 14:18, his three ignited a 10-0 run, giving the hosts a 23-14 lead with just under 12 minutes left.
Hamilton answered with a quick 5-0 burst on jumpers from Peter Kazickas and Bradley Gifford. The two teams exchanged baskets three times before Middlebury cobbled together an 8-0 run built with five free throws and a three-pointer from Jake Brown for a 37-24 lead at 5:34. The Panthers maintained their double-digit lead, closing out the half with a 46-33 advantage.
In the opening stanza, Middlebury shot a staggering 6-11 from long distance as Merryman paced the Panthers with 10 points, including 2-2 from downtown. For the half, Middlebury connected on 16-27 shots and hit 8-9 from the line. Conversely, Matt Hart, the NESCAC's regular-season leading scorer (20.6 ppg), scored four points on 2-6 shooting, as the visitors shot 14-32 from the field.
The second half saw the Panthers open with a 15-6 run, building a commanding 61-39 lead. Consecutive three-pointers from Joey Kizel, Merryman and Dylan Sinnickson broke open the game, as Sinnickson slammed home a thunderous alley-oop dunk set-up by Kizel to cap the run, forcing a Hamilton time-out.
After the time-out, the Continentals responded with a 12-0 counterpunch. The visitors hit from long-distance range as Jack Donnelly nailed a three, followed by a jumper from Greg Newton and pair of Ajani Santos buckets. Joseph Lin capped the run with a trey at 11:44, setting the score at 61-51.
For the next eight minutes, the Continentals could not crack the double-digit threshold until Donnelly dialed up another trey at 3:37, cutting the Panther lead to 71-62. A lay-up by Middlebury's James Jensen gave the Panthers their double-digit lead back, but a Newton lay-up at 2:00 brought the lead back to nine.
Newton and Merryman traded two free throws before Hart heated up for Hamilton. At 1:15, Hart nailed a three off a Santos assist and followed with a lay-up, narrowing the deficit to 75-71 with 44 seconds left.
After a Hamilton time-out, Middlebury broke the full-court press as Jack Roberts got an easy basket and was fouled with :32 left on the clock. Roberts hit the free throw for a 78-71 lead. Lin answered for the visitors with a quick lay-up. After the teams exchanged time-outs, Hamilton forced a turnover and Middlebury fouled Hart, who sank both free throws, making it a one-possession game with 20 seconds to play. Trailing 78-75, Hamilton fouled Kizel on the inbound pass, and Kizel made 1-2 from the line for a 79-75 lead with 16 ticks remaining.
With 10 seconds left, Hart launched a three that was off-line as the Panthers got the rebound. Hamilton sent Kizel back to the line where he netted both free throws for an 81-75 lead with six seconds left. In the final second, Lin collected a Hamilton miss for a lay-up capping the score at 81-77.
Merryman led Middlebury with 17 points on 5-6 shooting including 3-4 from behind the arc. Kizel finished with 14 points, six rebounds and a team-best six assists, while Sinnickson added a dozen points and five caroms.
Santos led all scorers with 18 points on 9-14 shooting, as Newton added 11 with six rebounds before fouling out. Donnelly chipped in 10, while Hart finished with 11 points hitting on 4-11 from the field.
Courtesy: Middlebury Athletic Dpeartment
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