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Bobcats nearly stage upset at top-seeded Amherst, 72-68

Zak Ray '07 nearly helped the Bobcats pull off an upset of the top-seeded Lord Jeffs.

STATS: Amherst 72, Bates 68

AMHERST, Mass. -- The third-ranked and top-seeded Amherst College men’s basketball team edged out eighth-seeded Bates College 72-68 in the opening round of the NESCAC Championship at LeFrak Gymnasium on Saturday. The visiting Bobcats led by as many as 14 points in the first half, but the Lord Jeffs used the opening five minutes of the second half to regain control of the game and take a lead they would not surrender.

Bates likely finishes the season at 18-7, while Amherst improves to 24-1. The Lord Jeffs will return to action Feb. 24 for a semifinal match-up with Colby College. Game time is set for 2 p.m. at LeFrak Gymnasium.

With the visitors holding an early 4-2 lead over the hosts, Bates senior co-captains Zak Ray (Bangor, Maine) and Rob Stockwell (Temple, N.H.) took control of the game and scored the next 15 points for the Bobcats. The two combined for 5-for-5 shooting during the stretch, including 3-for-3 from behind the arc.

Junior Bryan Wholey (Marshfield, Mass.) gave Bates a 21-11 lead with 9:50 remaining in the half, but Ray and Stockwell got right back to work, scoring their team’s next 11 points on 5-for-5 shooting. The Bobcats’ largest lead came with 6:27 remaining in the half when Ray drove in for a lay-up. After the lay-up, Amherst senior quad-captain Mike Salerno (Shrewsbury, Mass.) knocked down a three-pointer to ignite a 13-2 Lord Jeff run, as the hosts found themselves trailing 29-26 with just over two minutes remaining before halftime.

A Ray three-pointer and a pair of Bates free throws gave the Bobcats a 34-28 lead heading into the locker room. The hot shooting by Ray and Stockwell gave the impression that Amherst had been severely out-shot in the first half, but both teams took an even 50 percent field goal percentage into halftime. The co-captains scored 26 of their team’s 32 first-half points, with each player contributing 13. Leading Amherst in the first half was senior quad-captain Dan Wheeler (Bloomington, Minn.), who scored 11 points on 4-for-6 shooting, including 3-for-5 from downtown.

Rob Stockwell '07 shot 6-for-11 from the floor and 2-for-2 from the line for 16 points.

Ray got right back to work at the opening of the second half, storming down the court to drop in a lay-up and draw a foul in the process, giving his team a 37-28 lead after the good free throw.

But Amherst wasted no time getting back into a groove, as the Jeffs went on a 15-0 tear over the next 4:30 to take a 43-37 lead with 15:18 remaining in the game.

The run began when junior Kevin Hopkins (Greenfield Center, N.Y.) posted up down low and maneuvered his way in for a one-handed dunk. Sophomore Brian Baskauskas (Palo Alto, Calif.) drew a foul while knocking down a lay-up and converted the three-point play with a free throw, followed by some more dominant play in the post by Hopkins, who gave himself enough room to pull up for a short jumper and bring the Amherst deficit to just two points.

The turning point of the game came when Wheeler spotted up from beyond the arc and knocked down a three-pointer with a man in his face, giving Amherst its first lead of the game. Bates committed a costly foul away from the ball as Wheeler’s shot was in the air, giving the Lord Jeffs the ball right back. Amherst was able to find Wheeler on the inbounds play, as the senior pulled up from the same spot as his previous shot, sending the home crowd into an uproar as the ball made its way through the rim.

Bates would not allow the Jeffs to pull away, as the Amherst lead hovered between four and nine points for the next eight minutes of play. Senior Damon McGinn (Thetford, Vt.) cut the deficit to three points with a lay-up, but Bates couldn't come any closer. Both teams were clutch down the stretch, as the Jeffs hit their shots and the Bobcats responded with nice shooting of their own, cutting their deficit to three points on three occasions in the final three minutes of the game.

After a pair of Ray free throws brought the score to 71-68 with one minute remaining, a Wheeler three-pointer bounced out on the next Amherst possession, giving Bates a chance to hold out for the final shot of regulation. The ball naturally made its way to Ray, who pulled up from way behind the arc with 11 seconds on the clock. The shot did not fall through, but Stockwell came up with a big offensive rebound. His put-back attempt bounced off the rim and to Baskauskas, who found Andrew Olson (San Diego, Calif.) in the corner. Olson was fouled with three seconds remaining, and the junior made the first of two crucial free throw attempts. His second bounced out, but Bates did not have enough time to tie the game, as Amherst held out for the 72-68 victory.

John Lattimer '07 played in his final game for the Bobcats along with his four senior teammates.

Olson finished the first half with zero points on 0-for-3 shooting, but exploded for 17 second-half points on 3-for-3 shooting from three-point land and 6-for-7 from the line. Wheeler also finished with 17 points, while Hopkins chipped in with 10. Olson added eight assists, giving him 180 for the season and marking a new Amherst single-season record.

Salerno’s three-pointer in the second half marked his only points of the game, but his defense stood out above anyone else’s. For significant stretches throughout the game, Salerno successfully shadowed Ray and did not allow him to get any open looks.

Four Bates players finished in double figures, with Ray leading the way at 21 points. The senior added six assists, three steals and seven rebounds in a truly impressive all-around effort. Stockwell finished with 16 points, as both he and Ray shot 6-for-11 from the floor.

McGinn added 12 points for the Bobcats, knocking down all six of his free throw attempts, while Wholey finished with 11 points. Bates shot 42.9 percent in the game and an impressive 83.3 percent from the line, but struggled with the three-ball in the second half, hitting just two of 12 attempts. Amherst finished at 52.2 percent from the floor and 52.9 percent from beyond the arc, while knocking down 78.9 percent of its free throws, including 11 of 12 in the second half.

The Bobcats' season likely has ended. But the legacy of the five seniors on the team -- John Lattimer (Atlanta, Ga.), McGinn, Ray, Stockwell and Sam Taylor (Redwood City, Calif.) -- will endure. They were vital parts of by far the best four-year stretch in program history. Among the highlights of the past four years are:

  • an aggregate 75-29 record;
  • one appearance in the NESCAC Championship finals;
  • three appearances in the NESCAC Championship semifinals;
  • a program-record 16-game winning streak in 2005-06;
  • a program-record 11 consecutive wins to start the season in 2006-07;
  • 10 consecutive undefeated appearances in mid-season tournaments;
  • a program-record 20 wins in the 2005-06 season, which broke the previous year's mark of 19, which broke the previous year's tying mark of 18.