Men’s Basketball Second in NESCAC, Advances to NCAA Tourney
Issue   |   Wed, 03/04/2015 - 00:28

Men’s basketball made its fourth straight appearance in the NESCAC championship this past Sunday, but was unable to secure its fourth consecutive NESCAC championship after a nail-biting overtime loss to Wesleyan. However, even though Amherst’s loss meant that Wesleyan earned the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, Amherst will be making its fifth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance due to the team’s strong work during the 2014-2015 regular season and 2015 NESCAC tournament.

During the NESCAC semifinals this past Saturday, the fifth-seeded Jeffs posted a convincing victory over Bowdoin (the No. 2 seed in the NESCAC tournament) in a game hosted at Trinity.

Early in the game, the Jeffs and the Polar Bears exchanged points back and forth. About midway through the first half, the Jeffs trailed the Polar Bears, 14-13. However, 8 straight points from the Jeffs gave Amherst a 21-14 lead with approximately eight minutes left in the first half. In the final stretch of the half, Amherst outscored the Jeffs 17-10 to head into the break with a sizable 38-24 lead.

The Jeffs would continue to build their lead gradually in the second half. An Amherst layup gave the Jeffs a 54-34 lead with 11:36 remaining, which the Jeffs would maintain for the remainder of the game. While the Polar Bears pulled to within 14 points with roughly nine minutes to go, a 16-4 run by the Jeffs gave Amherst a 26-point lead with five minutes left in the game. Amherst would easily hold on and advance to the NESCAC finals with a 76-56 victory.

In the game, the Jeffs shot particularly well from 3-point range, as Amherst’s 10-25 from beyond the arc was much stronger than Bowdoin’s 3-point accuracy. The Jeffs had eight team steals and limited its turnovers to only seven against the Polar Bears. The Jeffs also outscored the Polar Bears by a whopping 42-0 mark in bench points.

For Amherst, first-year guard Jayde Dawson scored an efficient 21 points in 20 minutes, hitting two 3-pointers and shooting 7-8 on free throws. Amherst had four players in double figures, as sophomore guard Jeff Racy had 16 points, including going a perfect 3-3 on 3-pointers and 5-5 from the foul line, first-year guard Johnny McCarthy had 14 points and 13 rebounds for the double-double and forward David George ’17 was a strong presence inside with 13 points and five offensive rebounds.

Joining the Jeffs in the NESCAC finals was Wesleyan after they knocked off top-seeded Trinity in a close game in the semifinals. Although the Jeffs had beaten the Cardinals by an average score of 20 points during two games in the regular season, the Cardinals would bounce back against Amherst in postseason play.

The Cardinals carried their momentum over from the NESCAC semifinals, as Wesleyan jumped out to a quick 10-2 lead over the Jeffs. While Amherst trailed 19-10 with a little less than 12 minutes remaining in the first half of play, the Jeffs mounted a comeback by going on a 15-0 run to take a 25-19 lead with 6:51 left in the half. The Amherst lead was short-lived, however, as Wesleyan then outscored Amherst 17-2 over the remainder of the half to take a 36-27 lead.

While the Cardinals secured a double-digit lead early in the second half, Amherst would pull closer to Wesleyan during the second half, and would remain within striking distance of the Cardinals throughout the half. The resilient Jeffs managed to tie the game at 53-53 with a bit more than eight minutes to go. Amherst pulled even once again at 63-63 after a jump shot from Dawson with 3:35 to go in the second half, which would shockingly be the last points of regulation for either team and lead to overtime.

Both teams were unable to score at the end of regulation and for the first few minutes of overtime, but the Cardinals finally broke the scoring spell and took a 68-63 lead with about 90 seconds to go. A miracle 3-pointer from McCarthy narrowed the Cardinals’ overtime lead to 2 points with just under a minute remaining, and a layup from Dawson once again cut Wesleyan’s lead to two points with 12 seconds left, but the Jeffs came up empty in its final attempt to draw even in the closing seconds of the game. In the end, the Cardinals topped the Jeffs 74-70 and earned an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament.

Even in the loss against Wesleyan, there were some encouraging performances for the Jeffs. Forward Eric Conklin ’17 posted a career-high 19 points on 9-9 shooting, as he dominated inside and was able to capitalize on the Cardinals’ defensive plan to stop George in the post. Dawson (14 points) and McCarthy (10 points) cracked double figures for the second straight day, while sophomore forward Jacob Nabatoff added 12 points against the Cardinals. While the Jeffs and Cardinals shot similarly well from the field, the Jeffs struggled from 3-point range relative to the Cardinals and compared to their strong shooting in the NESCAC semifinals.

While Amherst had balanced scoring in both games this past weekend and Dawson and Conklin emerged with breakout performances, junior guard/forward Connor Green was noticeably absent. The standout player struggled to find his signature shooting touch and post his typical offensive production this weekend.

“For much of the latter half of the season, we relied on Connor to be the guy he has been,” junior forward and captain Ben Pollack said. “And he’s been more than that, too. When he is not feeling it, you have to have other guys step up. On Saturday we did, and on Sunday, we didn’t as much, which was kind of the difference in the games.”

Pollack described the championship game as a “valuable learning experience for a young team.”

“We’re learning from it going forward, and we are not going to let the loss hold us back as we move on to the NCAA Tournament,” he said.

This Friday, the Jeffs (who stand at 20-7) will travel to Rochester, New York to take on Sage College (23-4) in a 5:30 p.m. game.

“Sage is kind of the antithesis of teams we saw this season, especially in the second half,” Pollack said. “The NESCAC is a league that relies on sharp-shooting skills and execution, and less on athleticism and strong players. This team presses almost the whole game, is really athletic, and might not be as good a shooting team as other teams we’ve faced. This is something we really haven’t seen so far, so we have to prepare for it as best as we can and are hoping to execute against them and take care of business on Friday.”

If the Jeffs advance on Friday, they will face the winner of Worcester Polytechnic Institute (21-5) and St. John Fisher College (23-4) in a Saturday evening matchup at 7 p.m.

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