March 15, 2003
WILLIAMSTOWN, MA - Four games against the third-ranked team in the nation is a lot to ask in college basketball, yet that was the position 11th-ranked Amherst College found itself in when it traveled to Williams for an NCAA Elite Eight showdown on Saturday night. After splitting a pair of tough battles during the regular season and falling to their archrivals in the NESCAC Championship game, Amherst succumbed to the tenacious Ephs 91-75 at Chandler Gymnasium, spoiling a trip to their first-ever NCAA Final Four and ending their season at 24-5.
With a tenuous two-point halftime lead and senior center Drew DeMuth in foul trouble, Williams (29-1) went to a smaller lineup - one that brought success against Amherst earlier in the season - and shot a scorching 83.3% (10-for-12) from three-point land in the second half, leaving the gritty Jeffs in their wake and sealing the 16-point win.
"They did this to us before and it's one of the reasons they have a chance to win it all," said Amherst head coach Dave Hixon. "When they put (Tim) Folan and (Tucker) Kain out there and they're both 6' 5", can shoot the three and post up…they just shot the heck out of it and we didn't have an answer."
Not that they didn't try. With DeMuth out of the game, Amherst knotted the score 41-41 with a 6-0 flurry early in the second half, thanks to a foul-line floater by John Donovan (Holmdel, NJ) and a pair of turnaround jumpers by seniors Steve Zieja (Hadley, MA) and Pat Fitzsimons (Durham, NC). But Williams responded with six three-pointers over the next nine minutes to take a 17-point lead with 8:07 left in regulation.
Williams buried trifectas from all over the court. In fact, six different Ephs connected from beyond the arc in the second half, including Folan, Chuck Abba and Michael Crotty, who finished with three each and shot a combined 9-for-14 from downtown.
"Amherst is the best defensive team we've played against," said Williams head coach David Paulsen, "but we forced them to collapse on defense and then kicked the ball out for three-pointers. We made some tough shots."
Amherst led for much of the opening half but caught a bad break when junior guard Adam Harper (Washington, DC) took a finger in the eye and was forced to the bench with 6:57 remaining. Williams took advantage with a 9-0 run and never trailed again, although the Jeffs managed to cut the lead to two points at the half.
Sophomore Andrew Schiel (Wayne, PA) tried to combat Williams' long range bombing with 10 out of 12 Amherst points during a four-minute stretch in the second half. He finished with a team-high 22 points on 7-for-10 shooting. Fitzsimons was game as well, adding 18 points and a game-high 10 rebounds and earning NCAA All-Sectional honors.
Amherst shot an even 50.0% (25-for-50) from the field but couldn't overcome Williams' second-half barrage. The Ephs placed five players in double figures. Crotty led the way with 15 points and 13 assists, while Ben Coffin added 15 points and eight boards.
The loss is disappointing but by no means overshadows one of the most successful seasons in Amherst history. With a 24-5 record, including an 8-1 mark in conference play and a pair of victories in the NCAA Tournament, Amherst set a new school record for wins, and Zieja, Fitzsimons, and fellow senior tri-captain Ryan Faulkner (Lebanon, NH) will graduate as the winningest class in school history. They also led the Jeffs to an unprecedented four straight NCAA Tournaments and back-to-back NESCAC Championships in 2000 and 2001.
The trio, along with fellow seniors Sulaiman Jenkins (New York, NY) and Neil Somers (Monson, MA) addressed the media after the game.
"We've had the goal of reaching the Final Four since day one," said Zieja, the NESCAC Player of the Year and Amherst's all-time leading scorer. "It's a bit too soon to take pride in our season but in a week or two I'm sure we'll step back, look at some of things we've done and be very proud."
Williams moves on to the NCAA Final Four, which is set for Friday and Saturday at the Salem (VA) Civic Center.
"It's a bitter pill to swallow but they're from our league," added Faulkner, who tallied 10 points and four assists in his final collegiate game. "If they can win it all it'll give the NESCAC some added credibility. I probably wouldn't say it out loud but I'll be secretly pulling for them."
Box Score / Play-by-Play
Men's Basketball Ends Season at Williams; Jeffs Fall 91-75 in NCAA Elite Eight
March 15, 2003