Men’s Basketball Dominates in NESCAC Finals; Beats Rival Williams for Third Consecutive Championship
Issue   |   Tue, 03/04/2014 - 21:54
Niahlah Hope’15
Connor Green ’16 continued his strong sophomore campaign as he poured in 21 points against Williams in the NESCAC Finals Sunday. The Jeffs will look to continue their hot shooting in their first NCAA tournament game Saturday.

With their 93-82 victory over Williams on Sunday, March 2 in the NESCAC Championship, the Jeffs triumphantly cut down the nets at LeFrak Gymnasium after earning their third straight NESCAC title and the seventh overall in program history. As a testament to Amherst’s outstanding performance in the NESCAC Tournament and strong overall body of work, the Jeffs were one of two teams, along with Emory University, awarded a first round bye in the NCAA Tournament (also for the third consecutive year), proving that the Jeffs are widely regarded as one of the nation’s top teams.

After Amherst won the NESCAC regular season tittle for the third straight season and defeated Colby in the NESCAC Quarterfinals Saturday, Feb. 22, the Jeffs’ road to the NESCAC Championship began with a convincing home win over the Trinity Bantams in the NESCAC Semifinals.

On Saturday, the Jeffs proved to be too much for the Bantams. While Trinity managed to stay in the game through the first half, Amherst outlasted the Bantams with a particularly strong second half to pull away with the victory.

As the Jeffs held a 24-23 lead with upwards of eight minutes left in the first half, five consecutive points from Bantams center George Papadeas ’15 gave Trinity a 28-24 lead over Amherst. The remainder of the half, the Jeffs were not denied on offense. Over the final six minutes, the Jeffs outscored the Bantams 17-6 to take a 43-38 lead into halftime. Senior guard Aaron Toomey scored 21 points in the first half, including shooting five of eight from deep.

After halftime, the Jeffs cruised the rest of the way. Less than three minutes into the second half, senior Tom Killian’s triple gave the Jeffs a double-digit lead at 50-39. The remainder of the game, Amherst continued to build their lead and finished with an 80-62 victory.

Offensively, the Jeffs and Bantams were evenly matched with regard to shooting percentage in the first half, but the Jeffs performed better in the second half. On top of that, Amherst held a significant edge in shooting from three-point range throughout the game, as the Jeffs managed to shoot 45.8% from behind the arc overall, while the Bantams shot a measly 14.3 percent. Amherst also did a better job controlling the ball and limiting turnovers.

Toomey led Amherst past Trinity, finishing with a whopping 36 points. Toomey’s offensive stat line was highlighted by sharpshooting from behind the arc and from the charity stripe, as he converted all 14 free throws he attempted. David Kalema ’14 and Killian each added 12 points, while sophomore guard Connor Green turned in an 11 point effort complementing Toomey’s offensive performance.

Of late, the offensive unit has really clicked. “I think we have found our rhythm,” Killian said. “Everyone is sharing the ball and we are taking high percentage shots almost every possession.”

Continuing his impressive performance on the defensive end, David George ’17 blocked an astounding seven shots, tying a career-high, and pulled down six rebounds. In a combined 26 minutes, junior forwards Joseph Mussachia and Alex Levine combined for 10 rebounds, six of which came on the offensive glass, to combat the Bantam’s size and the physicality.

The Jeffs had a quick turnaround after their win over Trinity, as they squared off against Williams for the second consecutive time in the NESCAC Finals Sunday.

Killian shouldered the load early on, as he scored 17 straight points for the Jeffs. While Amherst held a 22-17 lead against Williams with 12 minutes remaining in the half, the Ephs surged with a 20-7 run. Ephs forward Duncan Robinson’s three gave Williams a nine-point cushion over Amherst with 5:50 remaining in the half. Yet, the Jeffs got right back into the game behind the play of Killian and Green. With time winding down in the first half, senior Connor Gach’s three-pointer pulled Amherst to within one heading into half.

In 16 first-half minutes, Killian hit seven of eight and scored 20 points. Late in the half, Green caught fire and finished with 10 points in the period.

Early in the second half, the NESCAC archrivals traded buckets as no team gained a clear edge, but in just over two minutes of action midway through the second half, Kalema, Green, and Killian each buried a shot from behind the arc, giving the Jeffs command of the game. The Jeffs finished the game on a 19-7 run to seal the deal with a 93-82 victory.

On the day, Killian poured in a career-high 31 points. He was incredibly efficient as he converted 10 of 12 shots. Killian was recognized as the NESCAC Player of the Week for his efforts. While Toomey did not repeat his 36 point performance, he contributed a great all-around effort, turning in a triple-double with 12 points, 12 assists, and 10 rebounds. Green (21 points) and Kalema (15 points) both provided key sparks to the offense, while George contributed nine points and 10 rebounds.

“I think our team was very determined,” Kalema said. “We had put in a lot of work to be able to host the NESCAC Championship. Both of those games were challenging in their own right. Trinity was physical and Williams had a chip on their shoulder from our previous matchups, but when it came down to it, we pulled away because we were determined to defend our home court.”

After winning the NESCAC Tournament and earning a first round bye in the NCAA Tournament, Amherst now stands five victories from defending its national title and picking up its third National Championship in program history (Amherst also won in 2007). Amherst’s 2014 tournament appearance marks the fourth consecutive year that the Jeffs have made the NCAA Tournament.

“The seniors have been incredible,” Coach David Hixon said. “I think the seniors are doing a great job. As a team, the guys are doing terrific, but the seniors are really leading and I couldn’t be more proud of a group than what our seniors have done.”

The graduating class of 2014—who are 9-2 lifetime in the NCAA Tournament—will look to make their third career trip to the Elite Eight and repeat as national champions.

“Repeating is on all of our minds, but taking each game one at a time is critical,” Killian said. “Our motto this year has been ‘one more’. We just want to win the next game and keep moving forward that way. When you start to think only about a national championship, upsets happen.”

On Saturday, March 8, the Jeffs take on the winner of Rhode Island College (20-8) and York College (21-7). Amherst earned a 20 point home victory over the Anchormen from Rhode Island College at the end of January.

A Jeffs’ triumph over the winner of Rhode Island College and. York sends the Jeffs into the next week of play, with both the Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight scheduled for the weekend of March 14-15.

A potential third round match-up for the Jeffs would be a familiar opponent in Plattsburgh State, whom the Jeffs defeated 89-72 in the second round of the 2013 NCAA Tournament. Amherst could be on track for a rematch against Cabrini (25-1) in the Elite Eight, whom the Jeffs beat last year. The Jeffs could also possibly face a familiar NESCAC opponent, Bowdoin, in the Elite Eight. If both the Jeffs and the Ephs win their regions, they would be on a collision course to meet again in the Final Four on Friday, March 21 in Salem, Virginia.

“We are definitely moving in the right direction,” Kalema said. “We had a couple setbacks this season, but we have found our stride recently. With that said, I still think we can raise our level of play. Last year, we played our best basketball in March and April so we know how difficult the tournament can be especially when you’re matched up with teams you haven’t seen before. I think our best basketball is yet to come, which is scary to think about.”