Zieja Propells Jeffs Past Western Conn. & Into "Sweet 16"
March 2, 2002
Senior guard Kevin Matthews (Ossining, NY) paced Western Connecticut State (21-7) with 28 points in defeat. Amherst (22-6) will now take on Brockport State (27-2) - which won its second-round matchup over visiting Trinity College, 80-61 - on Friday, March 8, at a site to be determined by the NCAA.
In front of a raucous home crowd, Zieja pushed the Jeffs to an early 15-6 advantage, hitting the first of a trio of three-pointers before connecting on a three-point play and feeding Fitzsimons for a thunderous dunk, all inside the game's first 6:22. Predictably, Western Connecticut State - which advanced to the second round with a 92-89 win over Salem State College on Thursday night - battled back, knotting the score at 24-24 when Matthews kissed a runner off the glass with 8:33 left before the break. Just over two minutes later, Matthews would tie the score again with an almost identical shot, forcing Zieja to take matters into his own hands. Over the final six minutes of the first half, Zieja scored nine of the Jeffs' final 17 points, including a run of seven straight during a frenzied two-minute stretch, practically willing Amherst to a 47-41 halftime lead.
The Jeffs continued to hold the upper hand for the first six minutes after the break but fell victim to foul trouble when sophomore guards Adam Harper (Washington, DC) and John Donovan (Holmdel, NJ) drew their third and fourth personals, respectively. First-year guard Ray Corrigan (Queens, NY) and sophomore defensive-stopper Frank Perry (Hartford, CT) filled in admirably, but Western Connecticut took advantage nonetheless, tying the game, 58-58, at the 13:13-mark on Marvin Evans' (Stratford, CT) turnaround jumper over Fitzsimons.
A wild stretch ensued with Zieja connecting on a pair of turnaround jumpers and first-year forward Andrew Schiel (Abbington, PA) scoring on a nifty up-and-under move. Not to be outdone, Matthews answered with a double-pump circus-shot over Zieja, and a mid-range jumper, to cut the Colonials' deficit back to just two points, 64-62. Western Connecticut then got a stroke of luck when a three-pointer by first-year guard Jay Reginatto (Torrington, CT) hit every part of the rim and rattled in, giving the visitors their first lead since midway through the first half, 65-64.
The lead was short-lived, however, as Schiel triggered a flurry of back-and-forth action with a clutch three-point play, and Western Connecticut's Lenny Rinas (Bristol, CT) followed suit with a silky game-tying jump-hook. Corrigan then splashed a miracle runner high off the glass, which was answered by an offensive tip-in from Western Connecticut sophomore forward Winston Grey (Norwalk, CT) for yet another tie score.
A pair of three-pointers by Harper and Schiel would put the Jeffs up 75-69 with just over five minutes remaining and - just when things were looking up for Amherst - the Colonials came right back, and eventually cut the lead to just one point, 76-75, on a lay-up by Rinas.
Both teams came away empty-handed on their next possessions, giving Amherst the ball, and a one-point lead, with 1:45 on the clock. In a dramatic turn of events, Zieja slipped and fell while taking a pass from senior point guard Ryan Faulkner (Lebanon, NH). Trying to save a sure turnover, Zieja lunged and hurled the loose ball toward half court where it was scooped up by an opportunistic Matthews for an easy breakaway lay-up and a 77-76 Western Connecticut State lead with 1:26 remaining.
After a full timeout, the Jeffs turned the ball over once again and Fitzsimons was forced to foul Evans. Luckily for Amherst, Evans missed the front end of the ensuing one-on-one and the Jeffs got the ball back with 31 seconds left. Desperate for a bucket, Faulkner pounded the ball down low to Zieja who used a spin move to fend off Evans and drop in a feathery-soft reverse lay-up.
Western Connecticut State hustled the ball past mid-court and quickly called a full timeout. Evans took a pass right in front of the rim on the ensuing inbound play and appeared to have a sure lay-up. Instead, he was swatted out of nowhere by Fitzsimons, who grabbed the loose ball and was fouled immediately by sophomore guard Andoni Alberdi (Windsor, CT). With nine seconds left, Fitzsimons - a 53.2% free throw shooter - swished both charity tosses. The Colonials had one last chance to tie the game, but Greg Cole's (Queens, NY) three-point attempt rocketed off the backboard into the waiting arms of Donovan.
Donovan then put the game out of reach with a pair of free throws, as Amherst scored the game's final six points over a 31-second stretch, to ice the win and a well-deserved trip to next weekend's round of 16.
Aside from Zieja and Fitzsimons, Donovan and Schiel rounded out Amherst players in double figures with 11 and 10 points, respectively. Faulkner added a game-high six assists, while Zieja tied a career-high with four helpers, all in the first half.
Western Connecticut placed three players in double figures with Evans (12 points) and Grey (10 points) joining Matthews. Cole paced the Colonials on the boards with eight rebounds, all defensive.
The win improved Amherst's all-time record in home NCAA Tournament games to a perfect 4-0 and sent them to the "Sweet 16" for the first time since the 1993-94 season. That year, the Jeffs advanced to the "Elite Eight" with a miraculous win over the top-ranked team in the nation, Franklin & Marshall College, before falling to eventual national champion Lebanon Valley College. Saturday's win also tied the school record for single-season victories, matching the 1993-94 and 2000-01 Jeffs.
Elsewhere in Amherst's region on Saturday night, the University of Rochester defeated Williams College, 63-51, Brockport State downed Trinity College, 80-61, and Babson College upended Union College, 63-50. Those three winners, along with Amherst, advance to NCAA Sectional play this Friday and Saturday at one of the school's on-campus facilities. For updated information on sites and pairings, visiting NCAAChampionships.com throughout the week.
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