Men's Basketball Captures Second-Straight NESCAC Title
Issue   |   Tue, 02/26/2013 - 21:33
Nialah Hope ’15, Public Affairs Office
The Lord Jeffs downed Williams 74-73 in the NESCAC Championship to capture their second-consecutive conference title.

The Lord Jeffs are NESCAC Champs!

With victories over Tufts and Williams over the weekend, the men’s basketball team wrapped up their second conference title in as many years. It is Amherst sixth NESCAC Championship overall and secures the team an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Championship tournament.

Facing the Jumbos on Saturday, Amherst faced a stiff challenge, but rode the support of their home crowd to an impressive win. Looking for their 18th-consecutive victory — a streak stretching back to early December of last year — the Jeffs got off to a slow start, but put things together in the second half to come away with the victory.

Behind an offensive outburst from Peter Kaasila ’13, Amherst began to pull away immediately after the intermission. A 21-7 spurt turned an early deficit into a double-digit lead and the Jeffs never looked back. On two occasions, Tufts was able to trim the deficit to nine points, but were not able to get any closer. A four-minute Tufts field goal drought drained any threat of a comeback, and Amherst ran away with the 84-69 victory.

On the afternoon, the Jeffs were led by Kaasila, who scored a game-high 20 points on 10-of-12 shooting, with 18 of those coming in the second half. It was the second time the big man has played well against the Jumbos this season, exploiting them to the tune 26 points in their regular season matchup. Complementing Kaasila’s effort, Willy Workman had an outstanding game as well, putting up a typically all-rounded line of 13 points, seven rebounds and six assists.

The Jeffs returned to the court on Sunday afternoon to take on archrival Williams in the championship game. The second-seeded Ephs had booked their spot in the finals with an overtime victory over Middlebury the day before. Riding high on the momentum from that win, Williams was certainly hoping to pull off a big upset.

In their two previous meetings this season, Amherst had dominated the series with their rivals. The Jeffs won at home in January and backed that up with another victory in Williamstown three weeks later. With double-digit margins of victory in both contests, Amherst had to like their chances coming into this matchup. Williams, though, playing with nothing to lose, would prove to be a dangerous opponent.

From the opening tip, this game was a nip-and-tuck battle. Neither team was able to extend much of a lead, as both squads played well. Tom Killian ’14 paced the Jeffs early, scoring five of the team’s first nine points and staking the home team to a small lead. Two possessions later, Williamson provided what was easily the highlight of the half. The senior ran a perfectly timed pick-and-roll with Aaron Toomey ’14, who served up an alley-oop that the cutting Williamson threw down with authority. The dunk extended the Amherst lead to four, but it would not get any bigger than that through the remainder of the half.

The second period began where the first left off. With neither team budging, the contest remained a one-possession game for much of the half. Eventually, it took a big basket from Toomey to break the trend. With just over six minutes to play, the junior guard connected on his second three of the game, sparking an 11-3 Amherst run that gave the home team their biggest lead of the night, 70-64.

The Ephs, though, were not going down without a fight. Mounting a furious comeback with less than two minutes remaining in regulation, Williams scored on back-to-back possessions to quickly cut into the Jeffs’ lead. An Amherst score momentarily stopped the bleeding, but Williams responded with yet another basket to narrow the deficit to one. However, with only 14 seconds to play, Williams needed to foul.

Playing smart basketball, Amherst made sure to get the ball into the hands of Toomey on the inbounds pass. However, attempting the first of his one-and-one, Amherst’s single-season record-holder for free-throw percentage could not put it down. The miss breathed life into the Ephs, as they grabbed the rebound and called timeout, securing one last chance to take the lead.

With only five seconds left on the clock, Williams drew up a play for Taylor Epsley ‘14. The junior guard came around a screen, getting the step on his defender for what looked like an easy layup. Soaring in from the weak side though, Williamson came out of nowhere to meet Epsley at the rim. The Amherst forward rejected Epsley’s attempt, an incredibly athletic and game-saving defensive gem. Workman collected the loose ball and time ran out, giving the Jeffs an impressive and hard-earned 74-73 victory.

Crowned as NESCAC champions, the Jeffs now look forward to the NCAA tournament. After losing in the third round to ninth-ranked Franklin & Marshall last year, this team will be looking to improve on that performance. Nothing is guaranteed, but building on the momentum of what is now a 19-game winning streak, Amherst will hope to keep this stretch of strong play alive.