AMHERST -- It’s going to be Williams and Amherst on Sunday afternoon for the NESCAC men’s basketball title and the automatic bid to the NCAA Division III tournament.
It wasn’t easy for Williams, but the second-seeded Ephs earned their way into the final with a 78-75 win over No. 3 Middlebury on Saturday at Lefrak Gymnasium.
Freshman Duncan Robinson made two free throws with 5.8 seconds left, forcing Middlebury to make a 3-point shot just to tie. Joey Kizel’s attempt came up short as time expired, and the Ephs advanced to the title game against the Lord Jeffs, something they’re looking forward to.
"Oh, we sure are," said Williams center Mike Mayer, who had a game-high 27 points for the Ephs. "Amherst is really good and it should be a big challenge. We’re really excited."
It almost didn’t come to pass because the Ephs trailed by 11 points at halftime and by 13 to start the second half. But Williams clawed back and took its first lead since the first half on a Mayer put-back with 2:45 left. That made it 72-70. Williams took the lead for keeps when Hayden Rooke-Ley hit a pair of free throws with 40.3 seconds left.
While the Panthers did make it 76-75 with 6.9 ticks remaining, Robinson’s two free throws gave Williams the cushion and eventually the win.
"Our guys played like champions today," said Williams coach Mike Maker. "I don’t know how much we have left in the tank for Sunday, but I’m proud of our effort.
The top-seeded Lord Jeffs advanced to the title game with a lopsided 80-62 win over No. 5 Trinity in the first game of the doubleheader. Aaron Toomey had 36 points for Amherst.
"We always welcome the matchup with Williams," said Amherst guard David Kalema. "At the same time, we understand how hard it is to beat a team three times. We know they’re going to come in gunning for us.
"We got them twice earlier in the season. We welcome that. We love the challenge. We love the energy they’re going to come out with."
The Panthers, who lost to Williams 64-61 in a similar contest, put on a shooting clinic in the first half. They led 50-39 and shot 64.5 percent from the floor and an incredible 71.4 percent from outside the 3-point arc.
"I was upset at halftime," said Maker. "I thought some of it was them. They’re a very talented basketball team. I thought a lot of it was that we were playing hard and with effort, but we weren’t competing. We challenged them at halftime. Obviously, we responded."
After Dylan Sinnickson scored off a fast break to start the second half, Williams got back into the game with a 10-2 run. Freshman Mike Greenman started the run with a 3-point shot and Taylor Epley closed the run with a pull-up trey from the right corner. The 13-point lead was cut to 54-49 and Middlebury coach Jeff Brown was forced to call time out.
Middlebury’s Kizel, who had 24 points to lead the Panthers, later gave his team a 64-55 lead on a 3-pointer with 11 minutes left. Williams answered as Daniel Wohl hit a trey and the Ephs went 6 for 8 from the foul line to tie the game at 64. From that point, neither team led by more than three points.
With time running down, Robinson gave Williams a 76-73 lead with 13.1 seconds left. Kizel was fouled at the other end, made two free throws and cut the Eph lead to one.
Coming out of Middlebury’s timeout, James Jensen fouled Robinson, and the freshman calmly made both, for a 78-75 lead.
"I was shooting with him the other day, and he made 15 in a row," said Mayer. "We know he’s going to knock them down."
"I just had to knock them down," said Robinson, who finished with 12 points. "We worked really, really hard. It took a lot of pride and a lot of effort to get back into it. We’ve worked so hard for this all year. I knew I wasn’t going to let my team down."
Maker called time out after the made free throws. Middlebury moved the ball quickly into the frontcourt, but Kizel’s 3-point attempt came up short, and the Ephs had the win.
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