Franny Clark photo
BY RICKY POLLITT
The road to the National Championship begins Friday for 62 Division III teams, and for the Sea Gulls and Panthers, the stakes have never been higher.
Salisbury and Middlebury will travel to Stockton University Friday night in hopes to get one step closer to the ultimate prize.
Winners of the New England Small College Athletic Conference, Middlebury received an automatic bid into the tournament after defeating Amherst in the NESCAC championship game.
After falling to Christopher Newport in the Capital Athletic Conference championship game, Salisbury was one of the 19 at-large bids into the tournament marking its second straight NCAA tournament appearance.
With talented rosters and top of the line coaching, both teams have the potential to go far in the tournament and have a chance to bring home a championship come March 19.
The Sea Gulls enter Stockton with a 21-6 overall record, including 13-5 in the CAC. Salisbury is a perfect 5-0 in neutral site games this season, while also tallying an 8-3 home and away record.
Salisbury’s offense enters Friday’s game averaging 70.9 points per game (PPG).
With top offensive threats juniors Gordon Jeter and Justin Witmer, and senior guard Adrien Straughn, the Gulls have been able to go on long runs throughout games, forcing opposing teams to play from behind.
One of the unique qualities about the Sea Gulls is their ability to shoot the long ball. Salisbury is shooting 36.4-percent from beyond the arc, scoring 10 or more 3-pointers in four of the last five games.
The senior guard duo of Rocky Harris and Straughn have posted 8.9 and 10 PPG, respectively. Seniors Kyle Savercool and Justin May have been two of Salisbury’s go-to players from beyond the arc, combining for 61 three-pointers this season.
Jeter, the Gulls’ top scorer and All-CAC First Team member, averages 13.6 PPG shooting almost 50-percent from the field and 75-percent from the line.
With the amount of weapons Salisbury has, Middlebury’s defense will need to have a strong showing in the first half to prevent playing from behind most of the matchup.
Despite the Gulls’ strengths on offense, it’s been the defense that has carried Salisbury most of the season.
Ranked second in the nation in scoring defense, the Sea Gulls only allow 60.3 PPG, recording 10 steals per game and causing an average of 18 turnovers.
Playing in the CAC, Salisbury has often been undersized in games, with their tallest player measuring in at 6 feet 6 inches. However, the Gulls rely on their speed over their size and capitalize on the turnovers the team is able to cause.
Jeter leads the team averaging seven rebounds per game, with Savercool second on the squad with 5.1.
The pressure Salisbury brings has caused several turnovers that lead to points for the Gulls, making it pivotal for Middlebury to protect the ball at all cost come Friday.
In his first season with the maroon and gold, head coach Andy Sachs has exceeded expectations getting his team to the NCAA tournament and CAC championship game.
A 1990 alumni of Salisbury, Sachs has stated NCAA tournament appearances will become a common occurrence for the program while he is in command.
After winning the conference title, the Panthers increased their record to 17-10 overall going 6-4 in the conference. Middlebury has struggled in neutral sites this
season going 2-3, but with a perfect home record, the Panthers will make the trip from Vermont and hope for a strong fan turnout at Stockton to give them momentum.
The Panthers have relied on their offense most of the season averaging 78.6 PPG game, shooting 45.1-percent from the field and 33.7-percent from beyond the arc.
Middlebury is led by junior guard Matt St. Amour who averages 19.3 PPG, putting him just outside the top 50 in DIII rankings.
Senior forward Matt Daley averages 11.6 PPG, with junior guard Jake Brown right behind with 9.8 and 5.3 assist per game.
Outside of Middlebury’s top three scorers, a number of reserves have stepped up to strengthen the offensive side of the ball.
Guards Jack Daly and Zach Baines, and forward Adisa Majors will have to have a big showing on Friday if one of the Panthers’ top scorers is taken out early by the SU defense.
The defensive side of the ball for Middlebury has been its kryptonite throughout the season.
Allowing 71.9 PPG, six of the Panthers’ 10 losses have been to teams averaging 70 plus points. Twice this season, Middlebury has allowed over 90 points by an opposing team.
Despite the struggles on defense, Middlebury does have the size advantage over Salisbury. 10 players measure in at 6 feet 3 inches plus, with three players 6 feet 7 inches or taller.
Daley leads with 7.3 rebounds per game with St. Amour and Daly averaging around five per game.
Averaging 8.1 steals a game and 42 rebounds a game, Middlebury’s defense has the capability to control the boards and not allow the Sea Gulls to find open lanes to the basket, making them play from outside the paint.
Head coach Jeff Brown, now year 19 as head coach of the program, will his team for their seventh trip to the tournament in the last nine years. With a career 308-184 record and three NESCAC championships, Brown has the experience to take his squad deep into the tournament.
IF YOU GO:
Who: Salisbury vs. Middlebury (NCAA Tournament First-Round)
When: Friday, Mar. 4 at 5:30 p.m.
Where: Galloway, New Jersey. Stockton University