Men’s basketball coach Mike Neer knew all along that the road to Virginia ran through Massachusetts. Whether it was Williams College or Amherst College, the New England teams presented a formidable line of defense for any team looking to advance to the Final Four in Salem, Va.The curtain fell prematurely for men’s basketball Friday night on a Williamstown, Mass. stage as the Yellowjackets were stung 74-68 in the Sweet 16 round of the Division III Tournament by the Amherst Jeffs, ending their season at 23-4.
The Yellowjackets, who had hoped to return to the Final Four for the second consecutive season, advanced to the Northeast Regional semifinals after a first round bye and a quarterfinal victory over Western Connecticut State University the previous.
Indeed, the Yellowjackets were confident, poised and ready to capture the Northeast Regional title as they arrived at Chandler Gymnasium on the Williams campus. Amherst College appeared to be a competent foe and a serious threat to snap UR’s 10-game winning streak.
“Amherst had everybody back from a team that played in the regional at SUNY Brockport last year,” Neer said. “We were very impressed with them last year and knew that they would pose a serious challenge to us if we were to play them this year.”
In addition to dominating the individual stat sheet, UR appeared to be on the verge of dispatching the Jeffs and still be home in time for supper, building a 13-point lead over Amherst in the first five minutes.
But the Yellowjackets were felled by a display of quick athleticism and a relentless spirit. Much like UR, Amherst College drew an at-large invitation to the Tournament. Their success was largely overshadowed by that of fellow NESCAC competitors and third-ranked Williams College.Like the Yellowjackets, the Jeffs earned a first round tournament bye and advanced to the Sweet 16 at Williamstown with a breezy 84-60 win over Southern Vermont College.
The Jeffs also had center Pat Fitzsimmons, who blocked eight shots Friday night and All-American forward Steve Zieja in their arsenal. The Yellowjackets started with their best foot forward, landing a duo of 3-pointers in their first two possessions of the first half. Amherst center Fitzsimmons hit a jumper to put the Jeffs on the scoreboard, but sophomore forward Seth Hauben reprimanded the Amherst men with a pair of jump shots to add to an already sizeable lead.
The Jeffs began to chip away at the Yellowjacket armor, holding UR scoreless for over four minutes while Amherst climbed back within reach of the visiting Yellowjackets. Hauben hit a jumpshot to boost UR’s lead back to six, but the damage had already been done.
With 33 seconds left in the first half Amherst’s Ryan Faulkner sank a shot to put the Jeffs in the lead for the first time. Amherst’s tight defense was highlighted by a remarkable 13 blocks. UR had no points in the paint in the entire second half.
The tone for the second half was set in its opening seconds by a slam dunk by the 6-8 Fitzsimmons to keep Amherst ahead.
Apart from an all-too-brief minute and a half, the Jeffs retained the lead they had fought tooth and nail for in the first half. For most of the second half the Yellowjackets were constantly within striking distance thanks to the efforts of Hauben, junior center Brian Jones and junior forward Andy Larkin.
The tide began to turn decisively in Amherst’s favor with slightly under five minutes remaining to play when the Jeffs ran a 8-0 run on the Yellowjackets to increase their lead to 11. Amherst’s lead remained slightly under double digits until when, with less than a minute remaining in regulation, the Yellowjackets attempted a furious comeback that fell just short of the mark.
Larkin and senior guard Jeff Joss sank two consecutive 3-point shots to bring UR to within four, but time ran out as the Jeffs celebrated their first trip to the Elite Eight since 1994.
“We started hot and finished hot,” Neer said. “They played better in between.” The Jeffs, although playing on the road in Williamstown, also held a territorial advantage over the Yellowjackets. “Last year the New England teams had to come to Brockport, N.Y., and we had success there. This year the New York teams had to travel to New England, which gave Amherst the same advantage we had last year.”
The Yellowjackets were humbled by the loss, yet were able to put the game in perspective.
“We are disappointed, yes, but we know that we are playing at the highest level of Division III. We had high expectations and came pretty close to meeting them. We are disappointed we lost but not disappointed in our season-long effort. We would have liked to be playing one more weekend but we will wait until next year to try it again.”
But next year already has a different look and feel to it. The Yellowjackets will be without several key players that were indispensable to the last two championship runs, and the overall rebuilding of the program.
Starters Joss and Sweeney graduate along with reserves Ryan Kadlubowski and Justin Hughes.
There is no doubt that these players will sorely be missed. In addition to the scoring void left by these seniors, there is also the matter of an empty leadership role. A number of players seem qualified to take over the position as team leaders.
Larkin, Jones, Hauben and Perez all have the talent and leadership skills to take the reigns from Joss and Sweeney. Larkin is the most vocal of the four, but it is clear that all have the talent to lead by example.
The quartet also have a combined 28 games of NCAA Tournament experience under their belts and still have unfinished business to take care of.
In addition, players such as junior Makedo Wisseh, sophomores Ross Briggs and Ryan Mee and freshman Joe Canty will likely get a chance at more playing time and an increased role in the team’s game plan.While the basketball season comes to a dissapointing close, the future of the program continues to shine bright.Schloss can be reached at email@example.com.