With 1.9 seconds to play in their Liberty League quarter final game against Hobart, the Vassar men’s basketball team’ season appeared to be on the verge of coming to an unexpected and disappointing end.
Prior to playoffs starting, Brewers’ head coach Ryan Mee had warned The Miscellany News through email: “The Liberty League has an NFL-like sense of parity where it is common to see any of the 10 teams win games on its home court and it is expected to see surprising results on the second day of back-to-back games.”
It appeared that the parity was delivering as advertised.
Entering the postseason, Hobart was 12-13 on the season. Vassar was 15-8 and owned the third best record in Liberty League play. On paper, the Brewers were supposed to win this game and they had led in it by as many as 13 points with under ten minutes to play. But Hobart refused to go away, gradually chipping away at the Brewers’ lead until finally taking its first lead of the second half with 33 seconds remaining. With less than two seconds left Vassar found themselves trailing and on the brink of elimination. Suddenly, records and prior leads felt like distant memories.
That is until, of course, Jack Rothenberg ’23 hit the shot of his life.
Rothenberg caught a full court heave from Ben Freed ’23 while two Hobart defenders swarmed him, and turned towards the basket. While falling into his own bench, he let a three go from the right wing. As time expired, the shot found nothing but the bottom of the net and saved the Brewers’ season.
The moment happened in February, but it was one that epitomized what college basketball fans love to call “March Madness.” Everything from the unlikeliness of scoring with less than two seconds to play while inbounding from the backcourt to Rothenberg falling into his teammates’ arms and then running around the gym in euphoric jubilation as the fans rushed the court seemed to be straight out of a sports movie and every athlete’s dreams.
Id.films, a sports content project run by two Vassar students, captured the magical moment in high definition. Their video has accumulated millions of views and likes on Instagram after being posted by two major sports highlight accounts, SportsCenter and Overtime.
In addition to bringing the Brewers into the national spotlight, Rothenberg’s shot sparked an impressive playoff run for his team.
After their Tuesday night thriller, the Brewers carried their momentum into a semifinal showdown with second seeded Ithaca on Saturday. Despite having lost to Ithaca by 13 exactly a week earlier, Vassar was led to the Liberty League finals by junior captain Avni Mustafaj ’23, who poured on 27 points on an impressively efficient 11-17 shooting. Rothenberg, as well as Zach Johnson ’23 and Zev Katz ’23 posted double digit scoring performances.
Vassar’s 76-74 victory over Ithaca earned them a spot in the Liberty League championship game the next day. With a bid to the NCAA tournament on the line, the Brewers delivered a dominant performance against a Skidmore team that had just upset the top seeded and host school Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) to win their first league title in program history. Led by double-doubles from Rothenberg and Johnson and double digit scoring showings from Mustafaj and guard Ethan Ellis ’23, Vassar never trailed and won the game by 17 points. The final rebounding numbers, where Vassar’s 50 rebounds bested Skidmore’s 35, tell the story of the game: the Brewers won because of their dominance in the painted area. For his impressive Liberty League playoffs run during which he averaged 16 points and 10 rebounds, Jack Rothenberg was named the tournament’s most valuable player.
Accolades poured in over the next week. The Brewers heard their name called during the NCAA’s tournament selection show with their first ever automatic bid to the tournament, Zach Johnson was named the Liberty League player of the year and Avni Mustafaj earned honorable mention recognition, and Rothenberg was named the All-Metropolitan Basketball Writers player of the week.
Vassar’s incredible week and impressive season came to an end that Friday in the first round of the NCAA tournament as the Brewers fell to No.13 WPI on their home court, who would advance all the way to the sectional final of the tournament where they lost to the eventual national champion, Randolph Macon.
Finishing their season in the NCAA tournament field is a far cry from where the Brewers’ season began. “After losing our first two home games against Elizabethtown and Albright we had a lot of questions and not many answers yet,” Coach Mee told The Miscellany News through email on Feb. 10.
But after those two losses, the team’s first actual games in two years, answers arose as the Brewers dug deep and won their next nine games. “That resiliency has stayed with us throughout the season,” said Mee before the playoff run that only made his statement truer.
Vassar finished the season with a record of 18-9, the program’s first winning season since the 2013-14 season. It is evident that what Ryan Mee and his staff have been doing since arriving at Vassar in 2018 is working, and with their core of juniors set to return for another season, the program’s future is a promising and exciting one.