There was a time when Middlebury head coach Jeff Brown didn’t think too much about the importance of blocking shots.
Andrew Locke changed his mind.
The senior center has swatted 109 shots this season, one of three players on the team with at least 30 blocks, and he is one of the primary reasons the second-ranked Panthers (28-1) will play in the NCAA Division III semifinals on Friday night against St. Thomas at the Salem Civic Center in Virginia.
“I really never put a lot of thought into shot blocking until Andrew got here,” Brown said. “He and Ryan (Sharry) and Jamal (Davis) have such a knack for blocking shots and it allows our guards to pressure a lot more.”
Sharry has 54 blocks on the year while Davis has tallied 30. There is no question that the intimidating post play of the Panthers has forced opponents to struggle mightily when it comes to shooting the basketball.
In fact, all three of Middlebury’s opponents in the NCAA tournament have shot no better than 35 percent from the field, leaving no doubt that solid interior defense will give the Panthers a chance to contend for the program’s first national championship.
“All three players are very good at anticipating when to try and block shots,” Brown said. “But even when they don’t get blocks, they alter a lot of shots. You see a lot of teams rush plays because of the pressure. To be able to hold three opponents to under 40 percent shooting is impressive.”
What is also impressive is that Middlebury has won its last 12 games since a 69-64 setback to Williams at the end of January. The Panthers, who opened the year with a 16-game win streak, have set a school record for wins in a season and are in the Final Four for the first time in school history.
Now, the Panthers, riding the high of a 65-50 win against St. Mary’s (MD.) in a sectional final in Rochester, NY., will look to take their act to the game’s biggest stage.
Brown said his team has to guard against getting caught up in the hype of the moment.
“We have to say the course and stay consistent,” Brown said. “We won’t change too much in our routine. The biggest challenge is staying focused. I want our guys to enjoy the experience because it’s a tremendous reward. But we also have to go down there and be ready to focus on basketball.”
Whether or not the Panthers stay focused remains to be seen. What is for certain, however, is that Middlebury has the talent to be the team hoisting up a national championship trophy on Saturday afternoon.
Sharry, a junior forward, is team’s leading scorer, clicking for 13.8 points per game and pulling down 10.5 rebounds per outing. He has also dished out 44 assists and has tallied 25 steals.
Locke, who blocked six shots in the sectional final win, helping the Panthers limit the Seahawks to 33.9 percent shooting from the field, is averaging 10 points per outing. He is shooting 63.4 percent from the floor and is pulling down 7.6 rebounds per game.
“Locke has really emerged as a good offensive player,” Brown said. “He often finishes strong with a layup or dunk and that really energizes our team. He has played very well on both ends of the floor.”
Three other players are scoring at least nine points per outing, including sophomore guard Jake Wolfin, who is dropping in 9.1 ppg and has dished out 143 assists. The Panthers are averaging 73.2 ppg and giving up 56.2. Opponents are shooting just 34.4 percent from the floor against Middlebury, which ranks first in the country in field goal percentage defense.
Davis isn’t a major scoring threat, pumping in only 4.7 points per contest, but the senior forward does have the ability to help set the tone with a great defensive effort on a team that leads the nation in blocked shots at 7.9 per game.
Middlebury only reached the second round of the tournament a season ago, falling 75-59 to Rhode Island College. The loss put a damper on a 25-4 campaign. The Panthers learned from the experience, however, and they are ready for the challenge in front of them.
“The guys have been very receptive to our scouting reports and they will be ready to execute our game plan,” Brown said. “We have to focus on Friday’s game and hopefully we will play well enough to give ourselves a chance to play for the championship.”