Great Danes Run Over Cats

“Some days you’re the pigeon and some days you’re the statue.” Those are the oft-used words of current ESPN basketball analyst and longtime UVM head coach Tom Brennan. Applicable to nearly every sport, these words rang true as ever on Saturday. For the past three years the UVM men’s basketball team had been the proverbial pigeon, soaring far above their conference foes and dropping upon them what pigeons are prone to drop (hint-hint, nod-nod). The University of Albany, on the other hand, had been the statue for the majority of their existence as a Division I program. Not this season, not this day. Saturday afternoon the Great Danes of Albany jumped out to a huge lead in the first minutes of the game and never looked back as they cruised into the Big Dance in front of an anxious and energetic sellout crowd of 4,538. On paper it would’ve appeared to be an easy enough pick. Vermont (13-17) graduated the most dominating senior class in the history of the conference and was subsequently left with the most inexperienced roster in NCAA Division I basketball (0 seniors, 2 juniors, 5 sophomores, and 7 freshmen). On the other hand, Albany (21-10) had the season they’d been dreaming of for some time: solid recruiting, good coaching and talented players culminating in a deep, experienced squad bolstered by a weaker than normal America East. The conference championship was there for the taking and Albany’s motto was carpe diem. Jamar Wilson, the America East Player of the Year, led the Albany attack with a game-high 29 points. His backcourt partner Lucious Jordan had an impressive game as well, finishing with 18 points. Harnessing the palpable emotion in the arena, they were unstoppable. It was the Danes’ day. They could do no wrong. As boisterous as the crowd was, they could have easily been louder. For Vermont to be successful in such a hostile atmosphere they needed to neutralize the crowd and unfortunately they were not able to do so. In the first minutes, with the crowd was as enthusiastic as ever, but with the game still in reach, the Catamounts failed to make the most of several favorable opportunities. First, the ball became lodged between the rim and the backboard right in the middle of an early Albany run. The possession arrow sent the ball back to Vermont’s end. They didn’t score. Albany tacked on a couple more baskets. No more than two minutes later Albany was charging yet again when the shot clock came unplugged. The crowd was taken out of the game for several minutes – UVM had a great chance to regroup. Once again, they couldn’t capitalize on their good (albeit limited) fortune. To make matters worse, Vermont shot a measly 30% from the floor in the first half and connected on only 1 of 7 three-point attempts. Conversely, the hometown Danes shot nearly 60% from the floor in that first stanza and went into the half leading 44-26 after Wilson sank a leaning three-pointer at the buzzer. The second half went much like the first for both teams. Vermont still struggled to sink shots and to stop the Albany juggernaut. The Catamounts fell behind by nearly thirty points before clawing back to make it an 80-67 loss. Vermont’s three year romp was clearly over after graduating the likes of Taylor Coppenrath and T.J. Sorrentine last spring. However, in a weaker than usual America East they were good enough to make the final game (I called it) even with 7 freshmen and 5 sophomores. Beyond that though, it was no stretch to see them beating Albany this day – they had already done so earlier this season. The fact of the matter was that they did not do what they needed to do to make it into the NCAA tournament for the fourth straight year. The glaring lack of an attempt to get the ball inside, something that had hindered their success all season, was part of the problem. The Cats were plagued by far too many outside shots, shots that didn’t find their way through the hoop. With such a tall front court (6’11”, 6’8″, and 6’8″), force-feeding the ball into the post would’ve given the Cats many more high-percentage opportunities as well as giving the Danes a bout of foul trouble. Yet, there is a silver lining to the Saturday’s gray cloud. Vermont fans will salivate at the thought of this year’s team being a year older and a year wiser come March 2007. And as we’ve seen the last few years with the men’s basketball team, experience helps.