March 3, 2001
WORCESTER, Mass. - The Amherst College men's basketball team saw a great season come to an abrupt halt on Saturday when it dropped a Division III NCAA Tournament second-round game at regional-rival Clark University, 89-76.
The Jeffs, who ended their season at 22-6, rebounded from a four-point halftime deficit to take a five-point lead, 55-50 with 11:40 remaining, before Clark used outstanding defensive intensity and bench-play to mount a 16-2 run in the last 10 minutes to advance to the NCAA "Sweet-16" for the first time in over a decade.
"Everyone's disappointed right now, but when you look at the big picture, we had a great season," said Amherst Head Coach Dave Hixon '75, the school's all-time winningest coach with 394 victories in 24 seasons. "Clark is a great offensive team and found a way to turn up its defensive intensity down the stretch. It'll be interesting to see how they fare the rest of the way."
Sophomore forward Steve Zieja (Hadley, MA) led three Amherst players in double figures with game-highs of 23 points and nine rebounds, including 18 points in the first half, while fellow sophomore Pat Fitzsimons (Durham, NC) and senior tri-captain Brian Daoust (Dover, MA) added 17 and 15 points, respectively. Meanwhile, sophomore point guard Ryan Faulkner (Lebanon, NH) matched his previous career-high of 12 assists, which he originally set in a 118-111 triple-overtime loss to Clark on Nov. 30, as the Jeffs bowed out in the NCAA second round for the second straight year.
Clark placed four players in double figures, including freshman guards Dave McNamara (Worcester, MA) and Trevor Walker (Milford, MA), who came off the bench to pour in 20 and 15 points, respectively. Senior forward Bob Andrejczyk (Warren, MA) added 13 points on six-for-nine shooting, while sophomore guard Sean Fleming (Smithfield, RI) rounded out the Cougar attack with 12 points.
Zieja repeatedly gave the Jeffs the upper hand during the opening 10 minutes, striking first with a three-point play to give Amherst an 8-7 advantage 3:48 into the game as the two teams traded leads nine times in the early going. Zieja then connected on a fast-break lay-in for a 12-11 Amherst lead at 13:41 and hit another transition bucket to put the Jeffs up 18-17 at the 11:20 mark.
Clark went back ahead on its next possession with a three-pointer by senior guard John Ginnity (Fitchburg, MA), before Daoust gave the game its third tie with a foul-line jumper on the ensuing possession. Andrejczyk and Amherst first-year Adam Harper (Washington, DC) then traded three-pointers to knot the score again at 23-23, before Andrejczyk tipped in a Walker miss to give the Cougars the lead for the rest of the half.
Down 42-36 with 1:12 remaining before the break, Zieja cut the Amherst deficit to four points with a pair of free throws. Senior Amherst guard Erik Kelly (Staples, MN) also had a wide-open look at a three-pointer that rimmed out in the waning seconds, as the Jeffs took a 42-38 deficit into the locker room at the half.
With Clark determined to stop a surging Zieja after halftime, Amherst turned to Fitzsimons. At one point, the sophomore hit six straight field goals for the Jeffs and registered blocked shots on three consecutive Cougar possessions, including a spectacular swat that led to an easy transition lay-up-and a 49-48 Amherst lead-with 13:37 remaining. The Jeffs kept the momentum and led by as many as five points, 55-50, with 11:40 remaining. The Cougars rallied, however, and Andrejczyk drilled a running one-hander as part of a 16-2 Clark run to give the Cougars a 58-57 at the 8:10 mark. From there, Clark went to a smaller, faster lineup, sparked by the 5'10" McNamara and 5'11" reserve guard Rob Skowyra (Ware, MA), substituting in waves to nullify the Jeffs' vaunted low-post attack.
"Clark switched defenses repeatedly in the second half and used its quickness to keep the ball away from our big guys," Hixon added. "They also went 12 or 13 players deep on the bench, so a lot of our players found themselves defended by three or four different players down the stretch."
Clark also benefited from Saturday's early 2 p.m. start-time, which forced the Jeffs to depart Amherst at 10 a.m. after playing a late NCAA first-round game against St. John Fisher College on Thursday. Clark, who drew a first-round bye as the second ranked team in New England, enjoyed a full week of rest after winning the NEWMAC Championship game on Saturday, Feb. 24.
With Amherst forced to foul down the stretch, Clark sank 11 of its last 12 free-throw attempts in the final 1:12, taking its largest lead of the game on its final basket, a breakaway lay-up by freshman forward Brent Kenneway (Sturbridge, MA) with 10 seconds remaining as the capacity home crowd chanted "Sweet-16, Sweet-16!"
Saturday's loss was the second of two great matchups between the Jeffs and Cougars. Amherst fell to Clark in triple-overtime earlier in the season in what was the longest and highest-scoring game in school-history, despite a career-high 39 points from Daoust, who tied a school-record with nine three-pointers. Ironically, the Jeffs went on to win nine straight games, while a victory on Saturday would have extended Amherst's current winning streak to nine.
The Jeffs finished their season with a single-season school record 22 wins, including a first-ever three-game sweep over archrival Williams College. Amherst also won its second straight outright Little III title and posted consecutive road wins at Bowdoin and Colby in the final week of the regular season to finish in a five-way tie for first place. As the fourth seed, the Jeffs went on to sweep the first-ever NESCAC Championship Tournament with postseason wins over Williams, Colby and Trinity Colleges. The 2000-01 Jeffs boast a pair of All-NESCAC selections in Daoust and Zieja, while Hixon was a near-unanimous choice for conference Coach of the Year honors.
Seniors Daoust, Kelly and Abe Sexson (Athens, Greece) graduate as one of the winningest classes in school history, with a 77-26 four-year record, including two trips to the ECAC semifinals, a pair of NCAA Tournament berths and a 7-2 career record against Williams. Daoust joined a select group of Amherst players in Thursday's NCAA first-round win over St. John Fisher with his 1,000th career-point, and the two-sport standout will graduate with 1,030 total points.
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