By JOHN CORYER
---- — PLATTSBURGH — The Plattsburgh State men’s basketball team is ready for its biggest challenge of the season.
The Cardinals play at No. 2-ranked Amherst College at 4 p.m. today in the second round of the NCAA Division III Tournament.
Plattsburgh (20-8), which received an at-large berth in the tournament, advanced to the round of 32 with last Saturday’s 84-63 home win over Husson College at Memorial Hall. The Lord Jeffs (25-2), meanwhile, had a bye in the opening round.
Amherst has more things working in its favor, but Plattsburgh coach Tom Curle said his team welcomes the challenge.
“We’re a pretty good team,” he said. “We recruit kids who have played a high level of basketball in front of large crowds. I expect us to respond well and not back away from the challenge.
“Our players need to relish the opportunity. We’ve been to the NCAA Tournament five times since I’ve been here and we have a pretty successful program. But this is a chance for our players to get national recognition and I don’t believe we’re going to get rattled.”
The Lord Jeffs are ranked behind only St. Thomas (26-1) in Division III.
Amherst went 10-0 in NESCAC play and won its conference tournament with wins over Colby (83-52) in the quarterfinals, Tufts (80-64) in the semifinals and a hard-earned victory over Williams (74-73) in the title game.
Williams, which is also ranked in the top 10 in the country, has a 24-4 record and three of the losses are to Amherst. Williams received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament and won its first-round game.
The Lord Jeffs are shooting 49 percent from the field, 39 percent from 3-point range and 74 percent from the foul line. They are averaging 83.8 points a game and surrendering 68.7 per contest.
Amherst is big, with two 6-9 players and two others at 6-7.
Four players are averaging in double figures — 6-1 junior Aaron Toomey (17.1), 6-9 senior Peter Kaasila (13.7), 6-6 senior Willy Workman (12.2) and 6-4 senior Allen Williamson (11.0).
“They are big and very skilled,” Curle said. “But what impresses me the most about them is that each guy on the team understands and accepts his role. Each player knows what to do and does it very well.
“They embrace their roles and individual match-ups are going to be very important. Their program has won a national championship before. There are 32 teams left and you have to beat the best to move on. We will be the quicker team, but they have the edge in size and experience.”
Amherst has a former local high school player on the roster. Former Saranac Lake standout Connor Gach, a 6-3 junior guard, has played in 17 games, averaging 1.7 points a game and 0.9 rebounds.
Dave Hixon is in his 36th season as coach and has compiled an impressive 688-252 record during that time.
“He’s one of the best coaches in Division III and nothing we’re going to do will surprise him,” Curle said.
Plattsburgh is averaging 75.8 points a game and allowing 70.0. The Cardinals are shooting 44 percent from the field, 33 percent from 3-point land and 66 percent from the line.
The leading scorers for the Cardinals are Shamoy McIntosh (12.1), John Perez (11.6) and Jordan Moody (10.0). Perez, who is lost for the season with a broken fibula, leads in rebounds at a 7.3 clip.
Point guard Chris Manning is averaging team-highs of 6.0 assists and 3.85 steals a game. He led the Cardinals in rebounds with seven against Husson.
Depth strength has been a key in Plattsburgh’s success all season as different players have stepped up in different games.
Six players — Ezra Hodgson, Manning, McIntosh, Reggie Williams, Moody and Kalik Parker — hit in double figures against Husson.
“We are playing our best basketball of the season right now,” Curle said.
“But I’m not a big believer in momentum. What matters is what comes on game day and not what happened before. You have scouting reports on teams and it comes down to making the right decisions.
“We have kids who are not easy to guard. We have to make sure we make the right passes.”
The Cardinals left for Amherst on Thursday, practiced there on Friday and will have a shoot-around in the morning today.
“We’re looking to get acclimated to their gym,” Curle said. “But there will be no crowd there when we practice.
“The gym will be packed for the game and it will be a great atmosphere. The fans will be right on top of you.”
The Lord Jeffs and Cardinals, who have won 20 games for the fourth time in program history this season, have one opponent in common.
Plattsburgh dropped an 80-73 decision at home to seventh-ranked Middlebury College early in the season — the only home setback for the Cardinals — while Amherst outlasted the Panthers, 104-101, in triple overtime, late in the regular season.
Middlebury is also still alive in the NCAA Tournament after last weekend’s 68-66 home victory over Curry. The Panthers’ second-round contest is today at 3 p.m. at Cortland State.