BEVERLY — Kevin Bettencourt knew it would be a tough game for his young Endicott College men’s basketball team, taking on Middlebury, the No. 5 Division 3 squad in the country. But the head coach from Peabody also knew it was a good test.

He saw a lot of positive things in the 98-78 loss, a game that was a lot closer than the final score might indicate.

“The real season for us begins Wednesday when we open league play,” said Bettencourt. “In the long run a game like this against a really good opponent is only going to help make us better. That’s why I like to schedule tough non-league games to get ready for our league.

“There were some encouraging things, and we’ll continue to develop. We’ve got a lot of young players, and games like this are only going to help them.”

It was really a tale of two halves with the Gulls shooting out to an early 14-8 lead, hitting a lot of 3’s, and playing good defense. The game was tied on four different occasions, and the lead changed hands 11 times, especially late in the half, but the home team came on strong in the final minutes to go up by six points, 50-44 at halftime.

Maatt McDevitt and Keith Brown both were in double figures with a dozen in the first half and finished the game with 14 and 19 respectively. The second half was a totally different story with the visitors in control after a 12-2 run at the start.

Shots weren’t falling for the Gulls, and Middlebury did a good job grabbing the rebounds and finishing at the other end. In the first half Endicott had out-rebounded the Panthers, 23-15, but by the time it was over the NESCAC team had a 43-36 edge.

“The biggest factor in the game was that we were really effective on the defensive end in the last 20 minutes,” said Middlebury coach Jeff Brown after his team improved to 7-0. “We made their shots difficult, and it was great to see that kind of energy.”

The Panthers were without 6-foot-8 senior forward Matt Folger, who missed the game with a sprained ankle, but they still had a height advantage. After hitting six of 13 three-point shots in the first half the Gulls made only one of in the second half and finished with 41.7 percent for the game -- and only made one of 11 after intermission.

“We need to learn how to play when our shots are not going in,” said Bettencourt. “On 50/50 plays or when calls don’t go our way we’ve got to fight through.”

The Gulls didn’t go down easy, but kept the game close until the last five minutes when Middlebury put it away. Jalen Echeverria, a freshman guard from St. Mary’s of Lynn, drove to the hoop and finished with a basket, but was called for an offensive foul.

“That could have gone either way, but the call went against us,” said Bettencourt. “That’s when we have to double down defensively.”

Middlebury’s strategy in the late going was to double team the ball, and it worked well when Jack Farrell (game high 31 points) came up with a steal and scored to make it an 80-69 game. Seconds later he made a long shot to put the game out of reach.

Max Bosco, Griffin Kornaker, and Tommy Eastman all had 14 points for the winners while Perry DeLorenzo chipped in with a dozen. Endicott had five players in double digits led by Brown, Matt McDevitt, Arsenault with 13, and Echeverria and Louis Ellis from Lynnfield with 10 each. Echeverria, a speedy guard, had the most minutes of any Endicott players with 32 while Brown led with eight rebounds.

“Ellis came off the bench and made plays,” said Bettencourt. “Echeverria has a lot of ability and is going to be a real good player for us. Our whole team is going to be pretty good, and games like this will only help. We’ll learn from our mistakes and move on.”

Wednesday the 3-3 Gulls host the University of New England (5:30) in the CCL opener.

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