By Justin Long
The energy in LeFrak on Feb. 10-11 was something that every sports fan should experience at least once. Over 24 hours, Amherst fans got to experience it twice.
Most schools will never see anything like what happened in LeFrak Gymnasium on Friday, Feb. 10, and Saturday, Feb. 11.
For the fourth time in as many years, men’s basketball was scheduled to close its regular season with games against Williams and Middlebury—the NESCAC’s new powerhouses—on consecutive days. It was a daunting task for Amherst, which was 1-5 in its past six conference showdowns with the Ephs and Panthers.
Friday’s 8 p.m. game drew the usual Amherst-Williams crowd. No open seats in the bleachers. Extra risers along the baseline, filled. Some fans had to sit on the floor. Others stood near the gym’s main entrance, lost in a sea of purple, white and gold. The nationally ranked Lord Jeffs were favored over the slumping Ephs, but everyone knew records were irrelevant that night.
The average collegiate basketball game probably features six or seven lead changes. Some don’t have any. But Amherst-Williams sporting events are not typically average, and Friday’s game had 24. Twenty-four lead changes, and the fans lived and died with each one. Twenty-four times, the energy in LeFrak shifted from one side of the gym to the other, only to shift right back like kids on a seesaw. Every point felt like the biggest of the season.
So it went for an hour and a half. When the Ephs took a 74-73 lead with 1:13 to go, their fans believed an upset was in the making. Amherst’s fans didn’t. With a pause in the action during a timeout, the student section took over. As though they had been practicing the routine all week, 250 Amherst students screamed, in unison, “I believe that we will win! I believe that we will win!” They repeated the chant, over and over. They jumped and danced. Music played; LeFrak was rocking. It was a moment that every sports fan should get to experience at some point.
Immediately after the timeout, Taylor Barrise ’12—as if responding to the chant—put Amherst back on top with his seventh three-pointer of the game. The dagger would come moments later. With the score tied at 78, Amherst gave the ball to Aaron Toomey ’14. He drove into the lane, spun away from his defender and calmly released a fadeaway jumper. His shot fell through the rim and gave the Jeffs an 80‒78 lead with only 1.9 seconds remaining. LeFrak might have never been louder. The Ephs inbounded the ball but missed a desperation heave at the buzzer. Students emptied the stands, stormed the court and mobbed the Lord Jeffs as though they had just won a national championship.
Head Coach Dave Hixon ’75 places that game among his all-time favorites. He didn’t expect the next one to feature an equally exuberant crowd. “Williams games are usually packed,” he says, “but the gym is often empty the next day. Kids typically don’t get out of bed until 4.”
Hixon may be right (LeFrak was definitely not at full capacity when Saturday’s game started at 4 p.m.), but it didn’t take long for students to fill the stands. Saturday lacked Friday’s tug-of-war feeling, but its ending was as good as they come. Toomey knocked down two free throws with 10 seconds left in regulation to send the teams into overtime, tied at 69. The Jeffs led for only 2.8 seconds during the extra period, but that’s all they needed. When Toomey missed a three-pointer, Pete Kaasila ’13 was there for a put-back that moved the Jeffs ahead, 77‒75. Less than three seconds to go. Time-out, Middlebury. Cue the student section.
Middlebury’s ensuing inbounds pass was lobbed toward the center of the court. Toomey—one of the smallest players on the floor—leapt up and grabbed the ball.
He took two dribbles, threw the ball in the air and sprinted to his teammates as the final buzzer sounded. For the second time in less than 24 hours, the Amherst student section poured from the stands like champions.
Rushing the court is one of the most exciting traditions in sports. Fans who experience it once are fortunate. But twice in 24 hours? That doesn’t happen. Hixon had never witnessed anything like it in his 40 years at Amherst. “As a weekend, there’s no comparison,” he says. “I was immensely happy for the players, but also for the community. Even if you know nothing about basketball, it’s part of what the college experience is all about. It was truly amazing.”
Amherst and Middlebury met again two weeks later, in the NESCAC finals. Barrise hit the winning three-pointer with 3.2 seconds left, giving the Jeffs the title. The stands were packed, only this time, police officers stood in front of the bleachers to prevent extreme postgame celebration. (There was an awards presentation to get to.) The students will hope for another chance to rush the court next year. For now, they’ll gladly settle for those extraordinary 24 hours in LeFrak.
Photos by Alec Jacobson ’12