Men's Basketball Falls Short of Repeat Title
Issue   |   Tue, 03/25/2014 - 23:07

Amherst men’s basketball’s hopes of repeating as national champions came to end on Friday night in Salem, Va. at the hands of archival Williams in the Jeffs’ second straight trip to the Final Four and sixth appearance in the national semifinals since 2004. In the week leading up to Salem, Amherst earned two convincing victories over Plattsburgh State in the Sweet 16 and against Morrisville State in the Elite Eight to set up a match with Williams for the fourth time of the 2013-2014 season.

The Jeffs finished the season with a 27-4 overall record, averaging 84.0 points per game and allowing 71.7 points per contest. Amherst went 16-0 at home, 9-1 in NESCAC play and earned their third straight NESCAC Championship with a win over Williams on Sunday, March 2.

On Friday, March 14, Amherst squared off against the Plattsburgh State Cardinals for the second consecutive year in the NCAA Tournament at LeFrak Gymnasium. From start to finish, the Jeffs appeared to be in control against the Cardinals as they posted an 87-63 win in the contest.

Less than two minutes into the game, Amherst pulled ahead with a 7-0 lead. Plattsburgh responded and narrowed the deficit to one point at 13-12 with 15:02 remaining, but Amherst continued to grow its lead from then on. The Jeffs took their first double-digit lead at 27-16 with 10:43 left to go, and led 49-29 at the halftime break. All five of Amherst’s starters notched at least seven first-half points, with first-year forward David George (12 points) and sophomore guard/forward Connor Green, who scored 11 points fresh off an injury, both reaching double-figures.

The Jeffs cruised after the break as Amherst never led by less than 14 points in the second half and finished with an 87-63 triumph.

In the game, all five of Amherst’s starters scored in double figures and three players posted double-doubles. Senior guard/forward Tom Killian led the scoring with 22 points, while Green and senior guard Aaron Toomey (who was recently recognized as the NABC Northeast Player of the Year, an NABC First Team All-American, and the National Player of the Year) each netted 15. George and guard David Kalema ’14 added 13 points and 12 points, respectively. Toomey notched a double-double after dishing out 12 dimes, while George (11 rebounds) and Killian (10 rebounds) attained their double-doubles by aggressively crashing the boards. George narrowly missed a triple-double, as he swatted a career-high nine blocks against the Cardinals. George’s line of 13 points, 11 boards and nine rejections came in just 29 minutes.

On the night, Amherst shot 55.4 percent on field goals and 44.8 percent on three-pointers. The Jeffs also held a sizable 45-27 rebounding advantage and limited Plattsburgh St. to 63 points on 34.8 percent shooting from the floor.

“Plattsburgh had some advantages, but we went right at them from the get-go,” said Coach David Hixon ’75, who was just named the NABC Northeast Coach of the Year. “We handled them relatively well, we knew them [from last year’s matchup] and our guys weren’t intimidated.”

With Amherst’s victory over Plattsburgh, they awaited the Morrisville State Mustangs in an Elite Eight matchup the following day. The Mustangs entered play following an 88-81 win over Richard Stockton in NCAA Third Round action. In the first 16 minutes of the first half, the game between the Jeffs and the Mustangs remained close, as both teams held the lead multiple times and traded baskets. After holding a 29-28 edge with 3:52 remaining before the break, Amherst then went on a 13-4 run to close the half out with a 42-32 lead.

The Jeffs jumped out of the gates, doubling their lead to a 20-point margin, at 60-40, with 12 minutes left. Although the Jeffs would not relinquish their edge, the Mustangs fought their way back into the game and outscored Amherst 34-24 over the final stretch in the 84-74 loss to the Jeffs.

Just as he has done numerous times before, Toomey emerged as the star against Morrisville. The senior guard scored a game-high 31 points, shooting 7-15 from the field, an astounding 6-9 from beyond the arc and converted 11-11 free throw attempts. Toomey also grabbed eight boards and dished out four assists in the victory.

Kalema also made significant contributions as he scored 20 points on 8-14 shooting, while George and Killian each scored 13 points.

Toomey surpassed the 2,000-point milestone during the game, becoming the first player to do so after previously breaking the all-time Amherst scoring record (previously set by Steve Zieja ’03 with 1,708 points) earlier this season. Toomey will go into the Amherst record books with individual records posted for total points (2,033), free throws converted (606), and three-pointers made (291).

With Amherst’s victory over Morrisville, the Jeffs sent the Mustangs home for the season, while Amherst earned a trip to Salem, VA and a matchup with Williams in the Final Four.

In the highly-anticipated Final Four Matchup between NESCAC rivals Amherst and Williams, the Ephs jumped out of the gates early by building a 6-0 edge against the Jeffs, but four points from George and a bucket from Killian enabled Amherst to pull even at 6-6 around three minutes into the game. The Ephs’ first-year phenom Duncan Robinson (recognized as a Second Team All-NESCAC honoree, the NESCAC Rookie of the Year, and the National Rookie of the Year) and Kalema then traded three-pointers to make it 9-9.

Williams then took a 15-11 lead, but Killian responded with a three-pointer to keep it close.

Despite beating the Ephs all three times prior to the National Semifinal, the Jeffs trailed the Ephs 45-32 at the end of the first half. They key to Williams’ success in the first half was the stifling zone defense that the Ephs employed in addition to their impressive shooting.

Robinson, who scored 17 points in the first half on 7-9 shooting carried the Ephs. Green (12 points) and Killian (11 points) shouldered the offensive load and combined for 23 of the Jeffs’ 32 first-half points.

Foul trouble also played a part in Amherst’s challenges. George sat with two fouls early on in the first half, making it more difficult to defend Williams’ senior center Michael Mayer on the interior, who finished with 11 points in the first half. Toomey struggled to piece together anything offensively in the first half and picked up his third foul with 2:07 left in the first half.

While the Jeffs looked primed to bounce back early in the second half, the Ephs exploded and built a sizable lead that they did not relinquish. Robinson picked up where he left off at the end of the first half by launching a three-pointer to increase the Ephs’ lead. The Ephs then jumped out to an 11-0 run and took the lead by 24 points.

George narrowed the lead to 20, at 64-44 with 13:17, but the Jeffs were unable to stop Robinson and the Williams offense the rest of the way. After a fairly competitive first half between Amherst and Williams, the strong shooting and lockdown zone of the Ephs proved to be too much for the Jeffs.
Ultimately, the lone bright spots for the Jeffs in their 98-69 loss to Williams were the strong play of both Green and Killian, as they fought to keep the Jeffs in the game, yet ultimately to no avail. Green finished with 26 points and seven rebounds, while Killian posted 20 points.
Robinson posted a game-high 30 points, Mayer turned in a double-double and senior forward Taylor Epley scored 18.

With their win over the Jeffs, the Ephs snapped their eight-game losing streak against Amherst and earned a spot in the National Championship against University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. In an incredibly exciting game, UW-Whitewater sealed a 75-73 victory in the final second of the game to win the 2014 Div. III National Championship.

With the departure of this year’s senior class, a group which graduates with a 108-13 overall record, Amherst’s returning core will have big shoes to fill. 50.1 points per game out of Amherst’s 84.0 season average (59.6 percent of overall scoring), 15.8 rebounds per game, and 349 of the team’s 471 total assists (74.1 percent of total team assists) will all be coming off the books with the graduation of Gach, Kalema, Killian and Toomey. The valuable leadership, experience and basketball knowledge of this group of seniors will be greatly missed, as this year’s squad really benefitted from the leadership and contributions of the senior class.

“Aaron, David [Kalema], and Tom really took the team on their back, and [senior guard] Connor Gach had some good games and had some clutch threes,” Hixon said.

“Their achievements were amazing. 64-1 at home, 38-1 in NESCAC play over the last three years. What a great senior group.”

Green, George and sophomore forward Ben Pollack (who was unavailable to play in the NCAA Tournament due to injury) will certainly see major minutes next season, but several other key roles remain up for grabs heading into next season.

“Next year is going to be a huge change,” coach Hixon said. “I am cautiously optimistic, but we have a lot of work to do to be competitive. We have some changes to make and we need to get better. It is going to be one of the most interesting offseasons we have had in quite some time.”