Taylor Epley's clutch-shooting helped drive the Ephs into the quarterfinals. For more photos, see the slideshow.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A high-flying offensive performance and some late clutch shooting from Taylor Epley pushed the Williams men's basketball team (26-4, 9-1 NESCAC) past Virginia Wesleyan College (23-8, 14-2, ODAC) in the NCAA Round of 16, 84-75. With the win, the Ephs earned a place in next week's quarterfinals, where they’ll look to earn their third trip to the Final Four since their current senior class arrived.
Tthe Ephs came out flying right from the opening tip, hitting their first four shots to build a nine-point lead within the game's first three minutes. Nate Robertson got the offense started when he cut through the backdoor, grabbed a Michael Mayer pass in stride and made the layup under the basket. On the Ephs' next possession, Daniel Wohl found Taylor Epley slicing diagonally into the paint that carried the latter to the basket for a left-handed lay-in and one, leaving a fired-up Wohl pumping his first at half court. Moments later, Mayer swiped a Chris Teasley pass and quickly started Williams in transition, where Epley and Wohl switched roles from the previous play to finish a 2-on-1 down low. After just 69 seconds, the Ephs led 7-0.
At that point, Marlins' head coach Dave Macedo had seen enough and called timeout, with mixed short-term results. A short fadeaway jumper from Chris Astorga put the Marlins on the board, but the Ephs soon stretched their lead out to 11 when Epley found Mayer out on the wing for his second three-pointer in less than a minute to make it 17-6 with 15:02 to go.
The Ephs, however, knew better than to get complacent.
"They were one of the best teams we've ever played," said Robertson. "We knew they were going to come back and that we wouldn't just cruise to a win."
Nate Robertson takes a free throw.
Sure enough, Virginia Wesleyan soon came charging back and knotted the score at 21 just over five minutes after Mayer's second three. The comeback was sparked by some strong play in the paint from Astorga, who led all first-half scorers with 13 points, and Colby Heard, who provided energy off the bench and scored eight points in just seven minutes. Indeed, it was Heard who drew the Marlins even when he got the ball on the baseline near the Ephs bench, spun to his left and finished a layup in front of the basket with 9:45 to go.
For the remainder of the half, the two sides traded buckets back and forth, with neither side managing to gain more than a four-point advantage over the other.
Every point had a counterpoint. When Astorga drained a three following some pretty perimeter passing from the Marlins to make it 28-25 Viriginia Wesleyan, Robertson marched the Ephs back down the court and turned the corner along the baseline to nail it back to one. Moments later, Epley drove inside before dishing in front of the Williams student section to James Klemm, who knocked down a three for his first points of the night to give the Ephs a 30-28 lead. But Teasley replied seconds later with a three of his own to restore the Marlin lead to one.
As the half drew to a close, the scoring pendulum swung the Ephs' way. With Virginia Wesleyan up by two with under half a minute to go, Robertson made a tough spin move in the lane to the basket, where he finished his layup to tie the game and drew a foul on Cameron Owens. Robertson made the free throw to give the Ephs a 40-39 lead, which they brought into halftime after Owens missed an off-balance jumper at the buzzer.
Whatever momentum the Ephs might have gained quickly evaporated, however, in the opening seconds of the final period. First, Astorga fed Tre' Ford for a three just 14 seconds into the half. Robertson then turned it over off the ensuing inbounds pass near half court, paving the way for Teasley to split the defense on a drive from behind the arc and double the Marlin margin to 44-40.
Michael Mayer lines up at the charity stripe.
Yet just when the Marlins appeared poised to make a run, Wohl found Epley open for three on the ensuing trip up the court for Williams to nail the gap back to one, completing a sequence that defined the seesaw nature of the half.
The Ephs regained the lead less than three minutes later, courtesy of a rousing effort on both ends of the floor. Wohl started the play when he hustled into the corner near the Marlin bench following an errant three-point attempt from Teasley, then sent an outlet pass to Robertson. The Williams offensive quarterback fairly sprinted up the floor and straight into the lane before suddenly passing the ball out to a wide-open Klemm in the corner, who calmly made from in front of the Williams bench to make it 49-48 Ephs with 16:31 to go, drawing a roar from the SRO-crowd at Chandler Gym.
But that, too, was short-lived, as Ford knocked down a three less than a minute later to tie the score at 51. On the ensuring Eph possession, Wohl attempted to give his squad the lead by quickly driving to the basket, but Astorga rejected him with a thunderous block that rattled off the backboard and into the Marlins' possession heading into the media timeout.
The Virginia Wesleyan players appeared to feed off the energy from that play and doggedly built a six-point lead, with Astorga again providing the exclamation point at Wohl's expense. This time, the Marlins' leading scorer drove to basket and made a difficult layup off the glass while bouncing off Wohl for the foul. He then converted the free throw to give the Marlins a 64-58 lead with 8:57 left in regulation.
Scarcely a minute passed before the Ephs began to mount a mini-comeback of their own, when Mayer and Epley combined on a slick give-and-go that left Epley free to fire a three while falling away from the basket. That made it 64-61 with 7:53 to play, and kicked off a run of five consecutive possessions on which both teams capitalized to keep the Virginia Wesleyan advantage fluctuating between three and five points.
Eventually, the sequence ended when Astorga threw an off-balance pass straight into his own bench. The Ephs capitalized on the Marlin miscue and almost immediately cut the deficit to one when Robertson lobbed a short pass to Epley, who spun to his right and put the ball of the backboard to cut the deficit to one.
40 seconds later, after Heard's layup made it 70-67, Mayer provided the game's defining moment when he found a seam in the Virginia Wesleyan scheme and finished his drive with a thunderous dunk that took the Ephs into a timeout by Maker with exactly five minutes left to play and the Ephs trailing by one.
An Epley three out of the timeout followed by an Astorga putback as the scoreboard showed 3:54 left the game tied at 72, setting the stage for a thrilling finish. Following a pair of missed layups from Mayer in the paint, the Marlins went back down the floor for a critical offensive possession. Eventually, Ford made his way outside and drew three defenders before kicking it out to Teasley for an uncontested attempt from downtown. But Teasley's shot rattled in and out off the rim and into the arms of Mayer, prompting Maker to call another timeout to set the Eph offense.
"We had a chance to make a few plays," Macedo said. "Unfortunately they made a few more down the stretch.”
Buoyed by their bit of good luck, the Ephs came out of the timeout firing and built their largest lead since the game's opening minutes. Epley broke the deadlock by knifing straight through the middle for a layup and a foul, where the Eph senior let out a primal scream before completing the three-point play for a 75-72 Eph lead with 2:51 to go. After a short Heard jumper came up just short off the front rim, Mayer found Epley in transition for another driving layup to stretch the lead to five.
The Ephs will travel to Salem to take on top-ranked St. Thomas on Friday at noon.
A tense sequence of missed shots and turnovers in the Marlins' offensive end ensued, with play finally stopping when Robertson fouled Teasley with 2:01 to go. The Marlins were in the bonus and sent Teasley to the line for a 1-and-1; Teasley's first shot, however, clanged off the rim and straight into the arms of Wohl. Wohl then fed Mayer on the other end of the floor, where the junior center was fouled on his way to the hoop. Mayer calmly drained both free throws to give the Ephs a 79-72 lead with 1:33 to go.
Just as they had following the opening tip, the Ephs had put together a 7-0 run to break the tie. This time, though, the Marlins had no time for a comeback.
"I think we're a team of runs," said Mayer. "We can score back-to-back-to-back."
A quick Ford drive-and-lay-in brought it back to 79-74 with 84 seconds left to play. On the ensuing Williams inbound play, however, the Ephs broke the Marlin press and dribbled valuable time off the clock before Mayer, who finished with 23 points, got to the line with 53.2 seconds left. Klemm made one of two to keep it a two-possession game at 80-74.
20 seconds later, following a single free throw for each side, the Ephs still led by six. The Marlins sent the ball around the perimeter with a newfound urgency as they came back up the floor, but Teasley's three-point attempt from the top of the key missed the mark. Klemm grabbed the rebound, got fouled, and made his second free throw to salt away, giving the Ephs their third trip to Salem in four years.
The Ephs now face No. 1 St. Thomas on Friday, March 22. Tip-off is scheduled for noon.