The power of two

By Pat Cummings 

Williams Ephs (29-1)
How they got here: NESCAC champion. Defeated Salem State (h) 91-77; Brockport State (h) 78-50; Keene State (h) 79-64.

Top scorers: F Ben Coffin (16.4 ppg), G Michael Crotty (13.7), F Tucker Kain (11.8), G Chuck Abba (11.7).

Head coach: Dave Paulsen

When they’re playing well: The rebounding differential strongly favors the Ephs who take advantage of second-chance shots, often swinging outside to sharpshooters Kain and Crotty.

When they’re playing poorly:The Ephs don’t hit their long-range shots. Their lone loss of the season came at Amherst with the Ephs hitting just two of 16 from beyond the arc.

Secret weapon: Casey Gibbons hits 43% from the outside.

Fun fact: The purple cow. Students voted the speckled bovine as their mascot on 1907, after a campus humor magazine of the same name.

Why they will win: Invaluable experience as the first defending champion team to return to the Final Four since UW-Platteville in 1999. The Salem spotlight won’t blind the Ephs.

Amherst Lord Jeffs (27-3)
How they got here: Pool C. Def. Plymouth State (h) 113-85;New Jersey City (n) 92-74; Franklin & Marshall (a) 82-70.

Top scorers: F Andrew Schiel, F (13.7); G Adam Harper (12.5); G John Bedford (12.1).

Head coach: David Hixon

When they’re playing well: Lord Jeffrey Amherst returns from the grave to hit a 3-pointer. This team is lethal from the perimeter, with Bedford hitting 45%. Lights out in Salem if Amherst has the touch.

When they’re playing poorly:Schiel and Tim Jones are in foul trouble. As a team, Amherst shoots under 40% for a half. Their season average is an astounding 49%.

Secret weapon: Williams already knows this, but big man Schiel can hit from anywhere on the court. His size is deceiving and at 6-7, he can connect from 23 or take it in for a one-handed slam.

Fun fact: Steve Zieja, Amherst’s all-time leading scorer and 2003 graduate, still resides on the bench, now as an assistant for Hixon.

Why they will win: The committee separated Amherst and Williams for a reason. The Lord Jeffs have seemingly played in the shadow of the Ephs for almost two centuries. In what will be the closest thing to a national championship, all-on-the-line game for these two, Amherst can justify their defection from Williams with the biggest win in school history. Should they beat Williams on Friday, a win on Saturday may not match the euphoria from the night before.

Mapquest says Williamstown, Mass. is 59.17 miles from Amherst, Mass. And to fend off the inevitable reader feedback, Amherst is 59.17 miles from Williamstown. And already having played three times this season within the confines of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Lord Jeffs and Ephs will traverse over 625 miles to square off on a neutral court, with a trip to the national championship at stake.

You know the story. Same coaches, same players, same legends, same contention over US News collegiate rankings. No doubt a litany of anecdotes will surface throughout the week.

As if seven meetings in the last two seasons were not enough, these two will meet in Friday’s first national semifinal and the stakes are higher than they have ever been.

"I wish we were playing them for the national championship," said Amherst alum and coach Dave Hixon after he was alerted to Williams' victory over Keene State in Saturday's quarterfinal. “When you get to this point, you want to see some teams you otherwise would never get a chance to play. There are no surprises when we play Williams.”

With all of the bragging rights that have accompanied this rivalry, there will be one winner on Friday, and we consider this game the apex of the Williams/Amherst and Amherst/Williams rivalry. Geography and money play the two main roles in practically assuring that the Ephs and Lord Jeffs will never meet for the national championship.

So this is for all the marbles. But haven’t they all been? When Hixon was asked if this rivalry gets boring, his response was leaning towards the affirmative, although “boring” may have been a strong word to use.

Hixon grimaced.

“We know them, they know us,” said Hixon, as if to imply that this was all no big deal.

Then, when Amherst players were asked about their neutral-court experience against Williams, senior Tim Jones was practically ready to rattle off the Ephs’ free-throw shooting percentage and rebound differential in that lone meeting at Trinity in the 2002 NESCAC tournament (statistics fiends will be served to know that Amherst won 69-62 in that contest, Williams shot 73.1% from the line and outrebounded the Lord Jeffs 46-34).

The seniors looked at each other and responded, “We seniors lead the series 7-6.” Yeah, old hat, no big deal!

Everyone knows that this is the most important game, ever, in the history of the two storied institutions. A rivalry big enough to sacrifice oneself? Well, so asserts Williams point guard Mike Crotty in The Williams Record.

“It’s the best on our level and I will defend until I die that it’s the best on any level.”

Don’t go that far, Mike.

We know the truth about this rivalry. You don’t need this column to tell you that. Sit back on Friday, whether at the Salem Civic Center or in front of your computer, and enjoy that which makes Division III what it is.

Then do it again next season. And forever.