Game 075:(1) Vermont 76, (9) Maryland-Baltimore County 61 America East Quarterfinals
Saturday, March 5, 2005 Events Center - Binghamton, NY
Back in 2001-02, before anyone knew who they were, the Vermont Catamounts enjoyed a wildly successful regular season (21-8) before suffering a semifinal loss to Maine - like so many other 20-win mid-majors, they were simply Uninvited. Now, as America's poster children for mid-major success, they've been through this process enough times to know what the score is. They play in a Cats & Dogs League better known as the America East - the Selection Committee will simply lose their phone number if they don't make it through the conference tourney. Just like they've done before.
With two graduating seniors (Sorrentine and All-Everything rock star Taylor Coppenrath) and a retiring coach, the Vermont basketball team knows the stakes are high as they navigate this year's league championship bracket.
"One bid," said UVM coach Tom Brennan. "So one bad day, and it's over. Like I always tell the kids, the wolf is always at the door."
Quarterfinal Saturday wasn't that bad day, and Brennan's Cats made sure of it. With Sorrentine coming back from a bad hamstring, and Coppenrath recovering from a flu bug that kept him out of the regular season finale loss to Maine, they used one short and rapid press on the gas in the second half to put away the ninth-seeded Retrievers of Maryland-Baltimore County. They wanted to conserve energy for the semis, and not run the chance of being caught unawares.
Coppenrath, a veteran of three America East tournaments, knows well that semifinal success sets up a campus-site finale. "It's real important to rest up and just come out fired up and ready to go... because if we win tomorrow, we go back to our house."
Reminding the team not to take plays off, and to come on back home, were two entire sections of green and gold-clad fans. They'd made the trip from Burlington by car, SUV and bus - they brought signs and pon-poms and foam claws, and were not afraid to use them. "Let's! Go! Cats!" they chanted as UMBC kept it close in the first half.
Brennan acknowledged the crowd's support afterwards, and marveled at the joyous throngs that have followed the team around on the road lately. "We travel like Nebraska football now," he effused. "It just happened, just like that. Once Coppenrath and Sorrentine got here and the pieces began to fit around them, it all just happened. All of a sudden, we got pretty and that was it."
"Never mind the games, it's the week leading up to the games... it's like Super Bowl week," Brennan continued. "The town goes nuts, everybody's just so gung-ho about these kids. The town and state has just embraced these kids, mainly because they are who they appear to be."
But as they zoom towards what maybe the team's third straight trip to the Field Of 65, a corner of Brennan's mind is always focused on that bloodthirsty canine that always lurks outside. "I just hope we have one more in us... we didn't get it done against Maine that one year," he said. "But the other two times, we got it done."
"If we lost today, I'd be fine with it," Brennan waxed. "This isn't for me, it's for our seniors. They deserve this."
But despite Brennan's healthy pragmatism, he still knows how to celebrate a victory, employing traditions he's built over his 18 years as Catamount coach.
"When we win on the road, we find the best steakhouse in town," he said. "Always have. Just because we're good now, we're not going to change that."