Game 097: (13) Vermont 60, (4) Syracuse 57 (OT)NCAA Tournament, First Round (Austin Bracket)
Friday, March 18, 2005
DCU Center - Worcester, MA
A crucial element of the tale is the heroine's anonymity - nobody knows who this girl is. She shows up at the ball in a nice chariot, rushes off in the eleventh hour, and leaves behind a shoe by mistake. Imagine if the prince knew her name and number, was able to skip past all the slipper-fitting... "Cinderella" would have serious third-act problems.
|Germain Mopa Njila|
But who in their right mind believes that the Vermont
basketball team fits this plot? Everyone knows who these guys are - at this point, everyone probably knows all their shoe sizes as well. The mainstream sports media is increasingly sophisticated and wide-ranging, and have put together something of a Cinderella futures market.
Mid-majors, especially ones with made-for-TV storylines, don't sneak up from out of nowhere anymore. All the national outlets have done their Catamount stories by now, and most of them have done five or six. Folks who don't watch ESPN or Fox Sports Net aren't immune, either - the feel-good trio of Taylor Coppenrath, T. J. Sorrentine and Tom Brennan have been covered by the New York Times
, NPR, and countless local papers that like to fill space with AP wire stories.
And no matter what one's rooting interest, it's an unquestionably great story. Coppenrath is the big and burly Vermont native who came from little West Barnet to the shortlist for this year's Wooden Award; sweet-shooting Sorrentine
broke both his wrists and came back both times; Brennan toiled in obscurity for two decades before finding his "Butch and Sundance," two rough diamonds who just clicked together on the court. All three are riding into the sunset and leaving UVM after the next loss - the coach to retirement, the two players to graduation.
So many people know about Vermont that there's a burgeoning backlash, the same kind of seething hatred that results when overexposure and over-fawning occurs. Cynics say that Sorrentine and Coppenrath are just low-rent versions of John Stockton and Kevin McHale, two-bit players who would once again wilt when they leave the cozy confines of the America East Conference, just like their blowout losses in the Tournament these past two Marches. They also say that the silver-haired Brennan isn't really going anywhere - he's simply using the spotlight as a season-long audition for an ESPN gig.
Love 'em or hate 'em, when the clock struck 7:10 in the east, the Catamounts were prime time TV stars. CBS ran their package intros, played their mood music, and introduced the three principal characters in the Catamounts' Cinderella story. For a lot of the audience, however, it all simply served as a reminder of what they already knew.
Surprisingly, the story did not unfold as scripted when play began. The Catamount center received the short end of his matchup with athletic, rangy Hakim Warrick of Syracuse
- as he was effectively swallowed up in the post by Warrick's long arms and superior upper body strength, Coppenrath's performance was a cruel reminder of the physical punishment that awaits should he make an NBA team. Point guard Sorrentine was unable to effectively run the offense or heat up from behind the arc, as everywhere he turned he found a thicket of white jerseys and limbs. He'd finish the game shooting 5 for 20 from the floor, a key leading indicator of a Catamount loss.
But without key contributions from their twin turbine engines
, the thirteenth-seeded Cats weren't blown off the floor by the orange-clad NBA farm team and their 700-victory national champion coach. Not even close to that. The first half ended after 20 hard-fought minutes, and Vermont hung around at 23-19 - primarily due to the efforts of a role player, one who didn't show up prominently in Syracuse's scouting reports.
Germain Mopa Njila is a 6'4", 200-lb. guard, a native of Yaounde, Cameroon. The N is silent, and his game has been as well for most of his four-year career at Vermont. He's spent four years dutifully toiling in the shadows of his rock star
teammates. His key stat for 2004-05 was his 2 team ranking in rebounds - his seven per game represented the boards that bounced out towards the perimeter, the ones T-Copp somehow couldn't get his hands on.
While Coppenrath and Sorrentine battled switch-on-touch double coverage from the athletic Orange, Mopa Njila simply planted the Cameroonian flag on the right side of the key, set himself up as a basic offensive circuit. But it quickly bacame evident that nobody was coming out to meet him when he touched the ball. Given five square feet of broad and enticing daylight, he began to take attempts at the goal.
And they swished through. He took nine jumpers on the night, and converted on each and every. The only shot that would fall short was a close-range hook late in the first half, but as his new-found scoring success did not translate to defensive attention. The Orange were too busy locking down Butch and Sundance.
"Those two guys are by far our best players," Mopa Njila would tell the press later. "I just try to help them."
Indeed, the SportsCenter
-ready highlights from this game were two big shots from Vermont's big two - A soft layup by Coppenrath tied the score at 51 and sent the game into overtime, and the backbreaking 28-foot trey was delivered by Sorrentine with a minute to go in the extra frame.
But with a career-high and team-leading 20 points (quadruple his season average) with nine rebounds, Mopa Njila helped out plenty. Insodoing, he took his place in that very particular pantheon of heroes, a list of previously-obscure players withnames like Bucky Dent and Francisco Cabrera
. These are men who lingered in the shadows, but managed to take advantage of their opponents' lack of respect for their skills.
And so, a young Cameroonian who carried himself with the quiet dignity of an African prince brought glory to his so-called "Cinderella" team. Despite any well-worn analogies the media used to describe Vermont's historic shock victory, there were no slippers or godmothers or gowns in Worcester that evening - and the only thing that resembled a pumpkin was the Syracuse mascot.Photo Gallery