As I settled into my usual reserved bleacher "seat" at the Roy L. Patrick Gymnasium on the campus at the University of Vermont, it occurred to me that the Catamount coaching staff(s) over the past decade simply didn't--and don't--get enough credit. How on earth do you convince a seventeen-year old with (i) reasonably solid and coachable division I basketball skills, and (ii) a well-above average brain, that he should spend the next four to five years of his life playing hoops in a glorified high-school gymnasium in a meteorological climate that is, typically, not conducive to playing outdoor basketball? Yet many of those targeted student-athletes do come, year after year, producing highly competitive America East teams (necessarily qualified by conference, to be sure), all the while churning out exceptional grades as reflected by the hanging "America East Academic Cup" banners just above the "Best Seat in the House" promotional recliner (the seat, by the way, while certainly comfortable, is not a great vantage point to view the game, and the purpose of having it be a recliner is entirely counterintuitive when you consider you're their to watch an event). Seven consecutive America East Academic Cups, combined with high-quality mid-major basketball. It's really a remarkable achievement. These players deserve to be watched by fans in regular seats, not bleachers.
Many of the student-athletes UVM tends to target are also being recruited by, and are interested in attending, Ivy League schools, and vice-versa. Accordingly, when competing against said institutions on the court, the respective coaching staffs undoubtedly have some significant familiarity with the personnel on the other bench. Such was the case this evening, when the Catamounts welcomed the 2011 mid-major power, and 27th nationally ranked, Harvard Crimson.
This game was an EVENT in Burlington, and deservedly so. Vermont, like many other mid-major schools, struggles to find quality opponents who are willing to make the journey to Burlington, which has been deemed "a tough place to play." I suspect the struggle of opponents may have as much to do with the travel other teams must endure and the quality of the Vermont teams than the small gym itself. I've certainly seen my share of games which I thought Vermont was surely going to win, only to have them come out flat and suffer disappointment. Nevertheless, to host a team which has garnered national recognition and respect, albeit early in the season, qualified this game as a particularly hot ticket.
To mark such occasions, Vermont typically calls upon local legend Dave Grippo and his alto saxophone to perform the national anthem, and he never disappoints. It was a terrific performance, and the resounding reception from the crowd made it clear that we were sitting in nearly a full-house which, in this case, is slightly more than 3,000, all but about 40 of whom are in bleachers. The Vermont pep-band, a regular attendee at UVM hockey games, was also present to keep the energy up, breaking out the cowbell whenever necessary.
What we heard about Harvard before tip-off was that they played stifling defense, allowing less than 53 points per game. The Crimson (wearing black) more than lived up to their reputation, seemingly blanketing every Vermont player on each possession. It's certainly not the most appealing basketball to watch, but you must admire its effectiveness. Vermont, by virtue of its half-court offense, wants to play games in the sixties anyway, so keeping the score low was hardly a challenge for the Crimson this evening.
Harvard began to asset itself in a tight game midway through the first half, opening up a ten point lead which it maintained into halftime thanks to some exceptionally crisp passing and very smooth 60% shooting. Further, the Vermont player best at creating his own shot, Brendan Bald, has been struggling mightily for a couple of weeks, and it carried over. Bald was effectively spinning and weaving through the Crimson defense to get open, close-up looks, but simply could not finish (he ended up scoring a total of one point, 0-8 from the floor). When the Harvard lead ballooned to 12, 39-27, a few minutes into the second half, I turned to my companion and questioned where the Catamount scoring would/could come from. To my surprise (and delight), the answer came almost immediately, in the person of freshman Four McGlynn. McGlynn scored eight in a row ("Four-For-Threeeeeee" resonated twice during this particular stretch) and, following another Vermont bucket which cut the deficit to two, 39-37, the crowd erupted as though they had just heard the anthem again, and the game was starting over.
Unfortunately for Vermont fans, Harvard did what top-27 teams generally do when playing a team its "supposed" to beat. The Crimson reestablished the absolute dominant post presence of Keith Wright, for whom Vermont really had no answer. The Catamounts actually did a nice job minimizing turnovers against Harvard's immense pressure, but the effort to get a clean look was exhausting, and it ultimately wore them down. Harvard was the better team, and earned the 55-48 win, improving their already ultra-impressive points-against average.
Thoughts exiting the gym: first, somehow, Harvard managed to neutralize Vermont's Brian Voelkel, the team's leader in rebounds, assists, and toughness. Voelkel was frustrated all night, played a total of only 15 minutes (no foul trouble), and came away with only one rebound. From the Vermont perspective, the hope is that he (and Bald) was simply having an off night, and that Harvard has not discovered a blueprint to take him out of his game. Second, Vermont fans began heading for the exits FAR too early. The deficit was only four with under a minute to go, and many of the "faithful" were already well on their way down the bleachers, I would assume, to beat the traffic. We were hoping for a comeback just so they would miss it. Third, Harvard's heading to the NCAA tournament, and it wouldn't surprise me at all to see them playing multiple games. Good luck to the Crimson. Finally, like every game thus far this season, I came away further convinced that Vermont will be very competitive in the America East. The defense and rebounding are strengths, the offense appears it will execute with regularity against more typical defenses, and there's enough depth to survive the grind. Here's hoping it's another banner season in Burlington, academic or otherwise.
HARVARD 55, at VERMONT 48 12/01/2011
HARVARD 7-0 (0-0) -- D. Pellum 5-15 5-6 15; B. Curry 2-6 1-2 6; K. Wright 6-11 1-3 13; K. Casey 3-4 2-2 8; O. McNally 0-3 2-4 2; L. Rivard 3-8 4-4 12; C. Webster 1-2 0-0 3; W. Saunders 1-1 0-0 2; J. Travis 2-3 0-0 4; S. Moundou-Missi 1-1 0-0 2; C. Miller 1-1 0-0 3. Totals 20-40 10-15 55. VERMONT 4-3 (0-0) -- M. Glass 3-9 1-2 7; F. McGlynn 5-13 2-2 15; S. Carissimo 3-6 0-0 6; J. Elbaum 0-3 2-2 2; B. Bald 0-8 1-2 1; L. Apfeld 4-5 1-2 9; B. Crenca 2-4 0-0 4; B. Voelkel 0-1 0-3 0; C. Rugg 1-1 0-0 2; P. Bergmann 0-1 2-2 2. Totals 18-51 9-15 48.
Three-point goals: HARV 5-13 (O. McNally 0-1; K. Casey 0-1; B. Curry 1-1; C. Webster 1-2; L. Rivard 2-7; C. Miller 1-1), UVM 3-10 (M. Glass 0-3; B. Bald 0-1; F. McGlynn 3-6); Rebounds: HARV 26 (K. Wright 8), UVM 24 (B. Crenca 6); Assists: HARV 10 (B. Curry 7), UVM 6 (M. Glass 2); Total Fouls -- HARV 17, UVM 19; Fouled Out: HARV-None; UVM-None.