Vermont men's basketball pulls away for America East championship repeat

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The University of Vermont men's basketball team lost five straight games in November for its worst start in a decade.

The defending America East Conference champions were reeling — and wondering when or if their season would ever get on track.

"It was just so hard to win a game, win a simple game," fifth-year captain Robin Duncan said. "A lot of us hadn’t been in that position before and in those moments you kind of want to quit sometimes.

"In past years, you had so many dominant players and so many returnees that it made winning look easy."

Spoiler: The Catamounts figured it out, months ago, and Saturday turned into another championship party at cozy Patrick Gym.

Behind transfers Dylan Penn, Matt Veretto and Finn Sullivan, and the commanding leadership of Duncan, the top-seeded Catamounts pulled away from No. 2 UMass Lowell late in the second half, 72-59, to capture the America East title in front of 2,880 fans.

The Catamounts, winners of 15 games in a row, will learn their opponent and site for the NCAA Tournament during Sunday’s Selection Show. With the UVM women winning the previous day, both Catamount teams will play in March Madness for the first time since 2010.

"To finish it off with a championship ... we were able to deliver," UVM coach John Becker said. "Towards the end of the game when we knew we had it won, I couldn’t believe it. We won it again. We won it again."

The Vermont Catamounts hoist the championship trophy after their 72-59 win over UMass Lowell in the America East title game on Saturday afternoon at Patrick Gym.
The Vermont Catamounts hoist the championship trophy after their 72-59 win over UMass Lowell in the America East title game on Saturday afternoon at Patrick Gym.

After starting the season 2-7, Vermont (23-10) seized its second of back-to-back titles, fourth in five seasons and 10th in program history, extending its conference record — all of them since 2003.

"It’s all hitting me at once right now. It’s unbelievable to have four rings," Duncan said. "I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t want to come to Vermont because this is an unbelievable feeling."

Veretto buried back-to-back 3-pointers to provide a seven-point cushion with 7:43 to go and Sullivan, the conference’s player of the year, completed a four-point play with 2:10 left to put the exclamation point on the Catamounts’ sixth America East championship in Becker’s 12-year tenure.

More:'Fairy tale ending': Matt Veretto and Dylan Penn lead Vermont to NCAA Tournament

Becker’s sixth crown also establishes a new conference mark for most by one coach, breaking a tie with Jim Calhoun and Will Brown.

"They're all unique. They're all awesome," Becker said of his six titles. "But certainly this one was the most unexpected, I would probably say and I rank them all kind of equally, but this one was definitely the hardest, most unexpected."

Penn, the tournament’s most outstanding player, led all scorers with 21 points on 8 of 12 shooting, while Veretto finished with 15 points and Sullivan tacked on 14 points with seven rebounds and three assists for Vermont, which out-scored the River Hawks 47-30 in the second half to win for the first time in nine tries this season when trailing at the break.

"Credit to the University of Vermont. They're a really good basketball team," UMass Lowell coach Pat Duquette said. "They deserve to win our conference. They were the most consistent during the season.

"I think one thing that we certainly realized tonight is the advantage of hosting in the finals."

After Aaron Deloney (10 points) drained an NBA-range 3-pointer to close Vermont's deficit to 29-25 at the half, Becker and the coaching staff used the 15-minute intermission break to reset his players' emotional levels and retool tactics on both ends of the floor.

"The decision at halftime, we put (Duncan) on the ball so they had to guard him for the first action and then we could play off that," Becker said. "In the first half, our ball-screen coverage was bad, (Veretto) was so far off his man and (Lowell players) was getting downhill. We cleaned that up and got (Veretto) up to the level of the screen, so he could be more of a presence and slow down the ball."

Vermont coach John Becker cuts down the net after the Catamounts 72-59 win over UMass Lowell in the America East title game on Saturday afternoon at Patrick Gym.
Vermont coach John Becker cuts down the net after the Catamounts 72-59 win over UMass Lowell in the America East title game on Saturday afternoon at Patrick Gym.

In a game that featured 15 lead changes, Deloney's corner 3-pointer gave Vermont an edge, 38-37, it wouldn't yield for the final 12:36 of regulation.

Penn pushed the lead to five points, 44-39, with 10:44 to go before Max Brooks threw down a two-handed dunk on Ayinde Hakim's feed to draw Lowell (26-7) within two points. Next, Veretto (three foul shots) and Yuri Covington (3-pointer) traded off three-point possessions to make it a 47-44 with 9:01 remaining.

Then Veretto, out of college basketball for the last three years, sank his championship-changing triples. The 6-foot-8 lefty took the extra pass from Ileri Ayo-Faleye — on one of Vermont's better offensive trips of the game — and splashed from beyond the arc.

Hikim converted on a layup on the other end, but Veretto drilled a step-back 3-pointer on UVM's next trip for a 53-46 margin with 7:43 to play.

Vermont's Finn Sullivan drains a 3 pointer during the Catamounts 72-59 win over UMass Lowell in the America East championship game on Saturday afternoon at Patrick Gym.
Vermont's Finn Sullivan drains a 3 pointer during the Catamounts 72-59 win over UMass Lowell in the America East championship game on Saturday afternoon at Patrick Gym.

Penn set up Sullivan for a cutting layup and also hooked in his own basket for the Cats' first double-digit advantage, 57-46, at the 6-minute mark, but Veretto 3s were the daggers in the eyes of Duquette.

"We let him (Veretto) get open in the second half for some threes. And that's really the difference. It's all it takes in a game like this," Duquette said. "I mean, it was back-and-forth up until that point and then all of a sudden, he gets open for two or three 3s, were fouling on 3s, they get the separation they want and there's the game. It's that fragile."

Allin Blunt (14 points) and Covington (10) reached double figures for Lowell, but the team's leading scorer Everette Hammond was held to eight points on 2 of 10 shooting. Lowell also committed 13 turnovers, leading to 15 UVM points and shot just 30.8% in the second stanza.

"They're not just good one-on-one defenders, they're good at helping one another and then rotating," Duquette said. "And everybody is versatile and can switch spots and make up for other guys mistakes."

The Vermont Catamounts stamp their ticket to March Madness after their 72-59 win over UMass Lowell in the America East championship game on Saturday afternoon at Patrick Gym.
The Vermont Catamounts stamp their ticket to March Madness after their 72-59 win over UMass Lowell in the America East championship game on Saturday afternoon at Patrick Gym.

As they battled through a hard nonconference slate, by the measure of its opponents and the miles traveled crisscrossing the country, the Catamounts worked through lineups, rotations and style in a trial-by-error approach.

"It was something that we just weren’t used to, losing by 20 to other mid-major programs," Becker said. "There's just a lot of new players and I tried to play a lot of guys early in the year to figure out what we had, which probably cost us a couple of games."

With seven newcomers to assimilate into the program, the Cats settled on an eight-man rotation, which turned into nine when Nick Fiorillo returned from injury before the start of the playoffs. Duncan and Penn ran the point in UVM's ball-screen motion offense. They solved what hadn't been working to go 21-3 since that 2-7 start.

"We're just throwing stuff up on the wall and working and trying to figure something out," Becker said. "And finally some stuff made sense and stuck and then we were off and running."

And the steady hand and voice through it all? America East first-team selection Robin Duncan, the third brother to walk through Patrick Gym doors and help the Catamounts reach the NCAA Tournament.

"Robin is the guy. He is a our leader, he is our captain. We are a reflection of Robin Duncan," Becker said. "This is his team. And he willed us to a championship. He had one of the best, most magical seasons of any player I’ve had."

Contact Alex Abrami at aabrami@freepressmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @aabrami5.

This article originally appeared on Burlington Free Press: Vermont men's basketball rallies to secure another NCAA Tournament bid