The 3-for-18 shooting from 3-point range and nine second-half turnovers were poor statistics by the Middlebury College men’s basketball team’s standards.
But in the Big Dance, the only important number is the final score.
Making just enough plays down the stretch, the experienced and resilient Panthers plucked a 68-66 victory over Curry College in the first round of the Division III NCAA tournament at Pepin Gym on Saturday night.
The Panthers will face Cortland in the second round on March 9; the site is yet to be determined.
“A win is a win in the tournament,” said Middlebury senior forward Peter Lynch, who led the Panthers with 17 points and five rebounds. “We just have to be happy we advanced.”
Joey Kizel and Nolan Thompson added 13 points apiece for the seventh-ranked Panthers (23-3), playing in their sixth consecutive NCAA tournament.
Kizel went over 1,000 points for his Middlebury career with a reverse layup to give the Panthers a 33-22 lead early in the second half before Curry rallied.
With the 6-foot-5, 255-pound A.J. Stephens powering inside for 20 points and 13 rebounds, Commonwealth Coast Conference champions took advantage of sloppy Middlebury possessions to cut the Panthers’ lead to 58-54 with a little more than two minutes remaining.
“They started to shoot the passing lanes a little bit, they turned us over and got some easy scores,” Middlebury coach Jeff Brown said. “And we really struggled at the start of the second half putting together some offense. They took advantage of that and really closed the gap on us.”
Kizel converted a key bucket with 50 seconds remaining, and the Panthers sealed the victory on the foul line. They held a Curry team that averaged 81.5 points during the season to 19 points in the first half and 38 percent shooting overall.
“As a coach any time you are 3-for-18 from 3 and you end up winning the ballgame, you’re pretty pleased, and credit the defense and the rebounding and some of the other factors,” Brown said. “That’s the way this team is, they find a way to be really, really competitive. There’s just a big belief that we can get it done.”