Senior center Pat Fitzsimons dominated Rochester in the second half and posted team-highs in points (16), rebounds (13) and blocks.
Jeffs Advance to NCAA Elite Eight with 74-68 Win Over Fifth-Ranked Rochester
March 14, 2003
WILLIAMSTOWN, MA - For the first time since 1994, the Amherst College men’s basketball team is on to the NCAA “Elite Eight”, thanks to Friday night’s 74-68 win over fifth-ranked defending sectional champion Rochester, which entered the game at 23-3 with a 10-game winning streak in tow. Senior center Pat Fitzsimons (Durham, NC) led the way with 16 points, 13 rebounds and a game-high eight blocks. Junior sharpshooter John Donovan (Holmdel, NJ) finished with 16 points as well, while NESCAC Player of the Year Steve Zieja (Hadley, MA) added 15. The Jeffs improved to 24-4 with the win. They'll take on sectional host Williams - 74-68 winners over Hamilton College - Saturday at 7 p.m. with a trip to the NCAA Final Four at stake.
Amherst overcame a scorching start by Rochester as the Yellowjackets, wearing visiting navy blue and gold, hit three-pointers on their first two trips and nailed nine of their first 10 shots overall en route to an early 19-6 lead. Moreover, Amherst junior guard Adam Harper (Washington, DC), who averages nearly 30 minutes and 12.7 points, committed his second personal foul four minutes into the game and sat out 16 minutes in the first half.
The Jeffs battled back admirably in Harper’s absence. Zieja drained a lefty runner, Donovan hit a three, and sophomore forward Andrew Schiel (Wayne, PA) swished a southpaw jump-hook to cut the lead to four. They then ended the half on a 9-2 run, capped by a steal and lay-in by senior point guard Ryan Faulkner (Lebanon, NH), which gave the Jeffs their first lead of the game (34-33 at the half) and much-needed momentum going into the locker room.
“We were getting blown out of the gym,” said Amherst head coach Dave Hixon, who has lad the Jeffs to the four consecutive NCAA Tournaments. “But our guys are tough-minded and they fought through it.”
“It’s a long game and they’re very explosive,” Rochester head coach Mike Neer added. “I knew we couldn’t sustain over the entire game what we did in the first nine minutes.”
Fitzsimons took over from there. Rochester regained the lead with a Tim Sweeney jumper, but Fitzsimons scored Amherst’s next 10 points, including a personal 6-0 run which gave the Jeffs a six-point cushion they would never relinquish.
“I didn’t have a good game last week against Southern Vermont, but I had a good week of practice and was feeling great,” Fitzsimons explained. “This is the Sweet 16 and you can’t take plays off.”
Fitzsimons’ flurry, possibly the best seven minutes of his collegiate career, featured a pair of tomahawk jams, a turnaround jumper and a spectacular tip-in off a Zieja miss while falling to the floor underneath the Amherst basket.
The Jeffs maintained the lead over the next eight minutes but got a scare when Rochester’s Jeff Joss drained a deep three-pointer to cut the gap to just three points, 55-52, with 5:34 remaining.
Zieja answered with his only three of the game, Donovan followed with another and Zieja banked a turnaround jumper to push the lead back to 11. The game looked to be well in hand. It wasn’t.
Rochester clawed its way back with three of the most unbelievable three-pointers in recent memory, all on consecutive possessions. Gabe Perez banked the first from the top of the key. Joss hit the second, a lunging miracle toss with Harper and Faulkner draped all over him. Andy Larkin hit the third from the left wing and the Yellowjackets were back within four with 31 seconds left.
All the while Rochester was forced to foul. The Jeffs responded by sinking 10 of 11 free throws in the second half, including a string of eight straight over the final 1:13. But the drama wasn’t finished. With 27 seconds left and a four-point advantage, Amherst tried three times to inbound the ball before Harper was whistled for traveling.
With a chance to make it a one-possession game, however, Harper stole the ensuing inbound pass and hit two final charity tosses to seal the win, which helped erase the sour taste of last year’s 69-64 Sweet 16 loss at SUNY Brockport, in which the Jeffs held an eight-point advantage with 3:28 remaining.
With the victory in hand, Amherst will shift focus to Saturday’s matchup with with Williams. The winner will advance to the NCAA Final four, which is set for Friday and Saturday March 21-22 at the Salem (VA) Civic Center.
“We’ve made it past the Sweet 16 but we weren’t satisfied in the locker room,” said Zieja. “This team knows what it wants and in the back or our minds we’d look forward to the challenge of possibly playing Williams for a fourth time.
Williams enters sectional play at 27-1 and ranked third nationally. Their only loss came at Amherst, 67-61, on January 25th.
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