The 1-2 punch of senior Adam Choice and junior Mike Russell might be the best in the New England Small College Athletic Conference. The Colby College men’s basketball team, though, has found out a number of times this year that other players on the roster can make an impact.
Colby’s role players came up big against Amherst College in a 67-49 NESCAC quarterfinal win last Saturday and they may play a key role again when the third-seeded Mules meet second-seeded and defending champion Middlebury College on Saturday at 4 p.m. at Williams College in a semifinal game. Williams will take on fourth-seeded Bates College in the other game at 2 p.m. The NESCAC title game is Sunday at noon at Williams. All the games will be webcast at: http://www.teamline.cc/sportpage?teamcode=0126&eventcode=6
“This is the challenge you look for as a player and a coach,” Colby head coach Dick Whitmore said. “We are at a point in the season where we are healthy, prepared, and anxious to play. The team is very hard working and is at the opportunity point to reach team goals.”
Choice, who could end up as the NESCAC Player of the Year, is second in the conference in scoring (18.8), seventh in assists (3.54), and 10th in rebounding (6.7). He is the only player since the 2002-03 season when the NESCAC started keeping top-10 statistics in all categories to finish the regular season in the top-10 in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals, and blocked shots. Meanwhile, Russell is first in the league in rebounding (9.9), fourth in field goal percentage (.588), and 12th in scoring (14.5).
While Choice struggled offensively against Amherst, Colby (19-5 overall) still excelled in the game against Amherst behind senior guards Christian Van Loenen, Justin Sherman, and Gil Haylon. Van Loenen had eight points and seven assists against Amherst and ranks eighth in the conference in assists (3.46), Sherman averages 8.5 points and had 11 against Amherst, and Haylon has knocked down a team-best 55 3-point shots and has more than 100 for his career.
Playing up with Choice and Russell on the forward line, Chas Woodward and Eric Beaulieu are capable rebounders. Woodward sparked the team and the Wadsworth Gym crowd with a slam dunk against Amherst and Beaulieu added five rebounds in the game.
Colby is in the NESCAC Final Four for the third time since the league started a playoff system in the 2001 season. The Mules knocked off Middlebury in the quarterfinal round of the tourney in 2001 and 2007 before falling in a semifinal game.
Here’s a look at the other teams competing this weekend:
MIDDLEBURY: Looking to return to the title game for the second year in a row will be defending NESCAC champion Middlebury (23-2). Last season was memorable with a program-best 24 wins and the team earned its first conference crown at home over Amherst, 77-68. Middlebury picked up in November right where it left off last March with a team-record 10 wins to start the season.
The Panthers just missed out on the number one seed for the second year in a row after falling to Williams on Jan. 30, 79-64, a game in which they were without leading scorer Ryan Sharry. Sharry, who averages 13.4 points and 8.0 rebounds per game, scored a game-high 18 to lead his team past a pesky Trinity squad in the quarterfinals, 56-52.
Although Middlebury’s offense ranks among the league leaders at 75.2 points per game, its defense is first in the league at just 61.1 points allowed per game and holds opponents to a .362 percent shooting mark, the best in the nation. Heading up the Middlebury defense are senior Tim Edwards and junior Andrew Locke. The 2009 Defensive Player of the Year, Edwards has battled past injuries to return to the lineup and is second in the conference in steals (2.11 per game) and assists (5.26). He has also grabbed 7.1 rebounds per contest and has an impressive assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.13. Locke currently leads the league in blocks with a 3.68 average.
WILLIAMS: Williams (24-1) put together an undefeated record in league play and captured the number one seed in the conference tournament for the first time since 2004. In addition, the Ephs have eclipsed 20 wins, again the first time since 2004, with their lone loss coming at Randolph-Macon on Dec. 30, 79-74.
A driving force behind Williams’ success this season has come offensively, with the Ephs leading the league in scoring with an 86.6 points per game average and they have outscored opponents by a margin of 21.0 points, a figure that is tops in the nation. The Ephs also boast a NESCAC-best .529 percent shooting percentage and a .464 conversion rate from three-point range.
A big reason for the Ephs’ offensive success has been the duo of senior Blake Schultz and sophomore James Wang. The tandem are both in the top five in the NESCAC in points with Schultz leading all scorers at 19.0 points per game followed by Wang in fifth at 16.7. Schultz also has the best three-point field goal percentage in the conference (.545) and is seventh among all players in overall field goal shooting (.538). Wang is right behind his teammate in shooting from beyond the arc (.525) and is fifth overall (.570). In the Ephs’ quarterfinal outing against Wesleyan, Wang dropped a career-high 30 points to help Williams earn a 77-62 victory.
BATES: The Bobcats (14-11) were struggling at the midpoint of the conference slate, holding an 0-4 league record and sitting at the bottom of the standings after losing back-to-back overtime affairs to Maine rivals Bowdoin (74-70) and Colby (73-66) on Jan. 22-23. With a playoff berth in doubt and a home quarterfinal game seemingly out of reach, Bates turned things around and won six of its final seven games, including a 76-47 victory over Amherst - the first for the Bobcats since the 1987-88 season - on Feb. 5 and a 64-55, come-from-behind win against Tufts in the season finale on Feb. 13.
Bates carried the momentum from the decision against the Jumbos into the quarterfinals and rolled past Bowdoin 80-64, avenging two regular season losses to the Polar Bears in the process. The victory put the Bobcats into the semifinals for the first time since 2006 where they will face the host Ephs, who were a 92-62 winner in the single meeting between the two on Jan. 16 in Williamstown. Bates and Williams have a bit of history together in the NESCAC championship, as this will be their fifth showdown all-time. The Ephs won the first two in 2003 and 2004 en route to their first two league titles, while the Bobcats won the 2005 first round meeting in overtime as they made their only conference championship appearance that year. Last year, Williams got by Bates in the quarterfinals with an 87-78 victory at home.
Brian Ellis paces his squad with 15.0 points and 6.9 rebounds per game, both of which rank ninth among all conference players this season.
2010 NESCAC MEN’S BASKETBALL CHAMPIONSHIP
Semifinals - Saturday, February 27 at Williams
No. 4 Bates at No. 1 Williams - 2:00 p.m.
No. 3 Colby vs. No. 2 Middlebury - 4:00 p.m.
Championship - Sunday, February 28
Semifinal winners - 12:00 p.m.