|Amherst Advances to National Championship Game for First Time in Program History|
Amherst Advances to National Championship Game for First Time in Program History
By Alex Kantor
March 16, 2007
SALEM, VA – The Amherst College men’s basketball team faced a tough squad from The College of Wooster this evening in the National Semifinal game at the Salem Civic Center in Salem, VA. Amherst came away with the 67-60 victory, sealing the program’s first-ever shot at a national title.
Amherst senior quad-captain Dan O’Shea (Lawrence, MA) took the opening tip of the game, initiating the Lord Jeff half-court offense. After running the shot clock down to just a few seconds, senior quad-captain Tim McLaughlin (Chatham, MA) buried a three-pointer from the top of the key.
After an offensive board and a put-back from Evan Will, Amherst sophomore sensation Brian Baskauskas (Palo Alto, CA) and junior Andrew Olson (San Diego, CA) hit on threes of their own as part of a 13-2 run by Amherst to start the game.
Amherst held an 18-4 lead after Olson nailed a tough fall-away jumper on the baseline. At the 14:37 mark, Amherst was shooting a blazing 4-for-4 from long-distance and 6-for-7 from the field overall.
The Fighting Scots would not go away easily, as much touted senior Tim Vandervaart came off the bench and made his presence felt early, scoring eight quick points. Wooster went on a small run of its own to close the gap to seven points at the 8:43 mark, 24-17.
Junior Fletcher Walters (Ann Arbor, MI) helped maintain the hot shooting for Amherst when he came off the bench and knocked down his first shot attempt from three-point land, only to draw a charge on the following trip down the floor.
At the five minute mark, NABC Northeast District Player of the Year Olson went to the bench, and McLaughlin took over ball-handling duties and the game for Amherst. After a steal on the defensive end, McLaughlin pushed the ball to the rim, where Hopkins tipped in the rebound. McLaughlin recorded a trio of steals to spark the Amherst side, and dropped in back-to-back lay-ups.
The Lord Jeff freight train of offense, driven by McLaughlin, rolled through the Salem Civic Center to close the first half on a 15-8 run, as Amherst headed to the locker room with a 39-25 lead.
Despite somewhat inclement weather in New England, Amherst returned to the court after halftime to a rousing welcome from a strong showing of Lord Jeff Nation.
Wooster went on a 6-0 run to start the second half, with Vandervaart flipping in consecutive lay-ups to remain perfect from the field at 8-for-8 shooting for 16 points. With Amherst’s lead down to eight points at 39-31, Olson found senior quad-captain Dan Wheeler (Bloomington, MN) on a broken fast break for a tough lay-up.
The Scots continued to turn the screws on Amherst, closing within three points by the 15-minute mark of the second half. Olson responded to the pressure by connecting on one of his signature fade-away jumpers.
A deep three-pointer from James Cooper reduced Amherst’s lead to two points, before Vandervaart scored his 20th point to notch the score at 43-43, causing Amherst head coach David Hixon ’75 to bring in defensive stopper and senior quad-captain Mike Salerno (Shrewsbury, MA) to try and spark the Amherst side.
McLaughlin picked up right where he left off in the first half, knocking down his third three while picking up a foul on a Wooster defender in the act. After missing the ensuing free throw, Olson found Wheeler with a no-look pass for a lay-up down the lane.
Coming off the bench in the second half, O’Shea helped Amherst regain some control of the game, as the Jeffs built a seven-point lead on the center’s tenacious offensive rebounding and gutsy defense.
The game was knotted back up at 53 apiece after a breakaway slam from Tom Port of Wooster at the 6:56 mark.
Coming out of a timeout, the Jeffs were able to get their first stop on Vandervaart, as Kevin Hopkins (Greenfield Center, NY) forced his counterpart to lose the ball in the post. On the following possession, Wheeler was fouled on an attempt from long range, but came up empty at the line, missing all three free throws.
After Olson knocked down a pair from the charity stripe, Amherst trailed Wooster 57-56 at the four-minute mark in regulation. Wooster hit a pair of free throws, but Olson and Hopkins responded immediately, executing the high screen-and-roll to perfection. The two-man play led to a Hopkins three-point play on an emphatic dunk.
With just 2:22 showing on the clock, Wooster brought the ball up court with the scoreboard showing 59s all-around. The Scots were bailed out when McLaughlin picked up his fourth foul as Amherst’s leading scorer with 16 points.
Amherst clung to a 61-60 lead with 52.5 seconds on the game clock, as Wooster inbounded the ball underneath its own hoop. Amherst knocked the ball loose on defense, and tied up possession for a jump ball, with the Lord Jeffs holding the arrow in their favor.
Wooster elected to foul Hopkins immediately, and the 6’10 junior hit both free throws. Amherst forced some very difficult shots from Wooster on the other end in two straight possessions, with Olson grabbing rebounds on both trips and hitting four straight from the line to ice the win.
McLaughlin added a game-high eight rebounds to his team-high 16 points, while Olson finished with 15 points and nine assists. Wheeler did not have his usual hot hand, but still chipped in with 11 points.
Despite letting go of their 14-point halftime lead, the Jeffs never went into panic mode. “For every run they had, we always had one good play," said Olson after the game. "We were getting good looks, and doing the little things seemed to put us over the hump.”
Amherst punched its ticket to the 2007 NCAA Championship game with a 67-60 win over a very tough Wooster side. The Jeffs will face defending champion Virginia Wesleyan College, with the championship game set to tip Saturday at 5 p.m. EST.
Head coach Dave Hixon is used to being on the big stage, but has never taken his team to the championship game. “All three times that we’ve been here have been good, but not for us," said Hixon after his team's win. "This times it’s different."
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