(Host) The University of Vermont men’s basketball team is returning to the NCAA tournament for the third year in a row, with a date against the Syracuse Orangemen on Friday in Worcester, Massachusetts. The Catamounts enter the Austin regional of “bracketville” as a number 13 seed, the highest ranking the team has ever enjoyed, and fans can be forgiven if they’re already thinking “upset.”
VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb reports:
(Wertlieb) The Cats earned a third straight berth in the tournament with a dominating 80-57 victory over Northeastern University in Burlington on Saturday, becoming just the third team in division one history to ever win their conference championship three years in a row.
The atmosphere at Patrick Gymnasium was further electrified by the fans’ realization that it would be their last chance to salute five of the team’s graduating seniors, including America East Player of the Year Taylor Coppenrath, point guard TJ Sorrentine, and head coach Tom Brennan, who’s stepping down after 19 years at the end of the season:
(Brennan) “I will remember the noise. It just struck me as I was walking out – man it is loud in here. I can’t believe how loud it is, and crowded, you know? There was people everywhere. It was just like Times Square.”
(Wertlieb) Not long after Tom Brennan’s signature tune – Van Morrison’s “Jackie Wilson Said, I’m in Heaven When You Smile” – ended the Catamounts went to work, clamping down defensively on Northeastern’s speedy point guard Jose Juan Barea. On offense, they got a big boost from sophomore Martin Klimes, the native of Prague in the Czech Republic who scored all of his 15 points in the first half while Coppenrath was being double and even triple-teamed by Northeastern defenders.
(Brennan) “I said to him, what a nice time to bust out, my brother. I couldn’t think of a nicer time, I don’t think he got 15 in February to tell you the truth but he just made everything. He was confident, just the player that we knew he was going to be. I mean there’s no doubt about that.”
(Wertlieb) Klimes downplayed his big contribution, attributing most of his success to the attention Coppenrath drew:
(Klimes) “I think every team is consumed with Taylor. I mean, obviously he’s a great player, a dominant player in this league. And always throughout the season we’ve had a guy that carried us. Because they doubled Taylor so someone’s going to be open, you know? And I got a lot of easy looks under the basket, so I had a really good time, you know, putting them in. It wasn’t really difficult.”
(Wertlieb) Point guard TJ Sorrentine said the key was getting off to a fast start:
(Sorrentine) “We wanted to jump on them early and see how they responded. They made some tough shots but we really locked down defensively, I thought, in the first half and that enabled us to get some easy looks on offense. So especially when you get the crowd, the crowd was great, when you get them involved we just feed off the crowd. So we knew if we could just start off fast we’d be in good shape.”
(Wertlieb) As the Catamounts built an insurmountable second half lead, the crowd moved from cheering baskets to thanking the coach who has come so far in his 19-year tenure.
Tom Brennan lost 50 of his first 58 games when he arrived in Burlington, and he was moved to tears upon hearing the crowd acknowledge his recent success. He also doesn’t hide his emotions when talking about this current Catamounts team.
(Brennan) “Obviously it’s a very emotional day for me. I love these kids no end, and what they’ve done for me personally taking me on this magic carpet ride. I could have never believed that it could ever get like this. What has happened here is a phenomenon beyond belief.”
(Wertlieb) The phenomenon could continue if the Cats are able to pull off an upset in the NCAA tournament. But it’s not lost on Brennan that just the honor of being among the field of 64 – especially for a third straight year – is a source of pride for his team and for a state not normally known for success in college basketball:
(Brennan) “I think one of the great things about Vermont basketball now is, I didn’t watch that show for 15 years because we weren’t going. I mean, you could play, but you couldn’t go. We were like Cinderella, you know, like you aint going to the dance, it don’t happen. And now I think of anything that’s happened to the people of this state, the sense of pride of selection, Sunday being a big deal – that’s a real big deal. And you know, the experts say an 11, 12 [seed]. I don’t know, the only thing is I feel bad for the next coach because President Fogel wanted a 12. I just chuckled, you know, and now, how about it? We’re going to get him a 12. I can’t believe it.”
(Wertlieb) Well, the Catamounts didn’t quite reach that 12 seed the experts had predicted. Tom Brennan was off by one as the Cats earned a 13 seed to face number four Syracuse in the first round of the NCAA tournament. And UVM fans will find out if the Catamount’s magic carpet ride continues on Friday.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Mitch Wertlieb in Burlington.