One of those fates awaits the University of Vermont men’s basketball team Saturday when it hosts the University of Maryland Baltimore County in the championship game of the America East conference tournament. At stake is the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, a winner-takes-all showdown five months in the making.
The game is a rematch of last March’s epic battle at Patrick Gymnasium in which UMBC stunned the top-seeded Catamounts 65-62 behind senior guard Jairus Lyles’ 3-point shot from the top of the key in the final second. The Retrievers went on to rock the NCAA by toppling Virginia in the opening round, becoming the first 16th seed to defeat a No. 1 seed in the tournament’s history.
UVM (26-6) again enters the title game as the No. 1 seed and UMBC (21-12) is again No. 3. But that’s where the similarities end.
A year ago, Vermont carried a 23-game winning streak against the Retrievers into the tournament final, sweeping that season’s two games by an average of 22 points. But UMBC has built on its 2018 championship upset by taking both games from UVM this year, dealing the Catamounts their only conference losses.
The Retrievers won 74-61 at Patrick (a game in which Vermont’s Anthony Lamb sat out with a concussion) and 65-56 in Baltimore. Apart from a 56-point total in a victory against Stony Brook, those were Vermont’s two poorest offensive efforts of the season.
This will be the first time in conference history that the No. 1 seed plays for the title against a team it lost to twice during the regular season.
Vermont is coming off an 84-51 demolition of Binghamton in the semifinals, a near flawless effort at both ends of the court that ran UVM’s winning streak to five games. In that stretch the Catamounts have allowed an average of 55.6 points. UMBC’s semifinal experience landed at the other end of the spectrum. The Retrievers lost a 26-point second half lead against Hartford before surviving in double overtime, 90-85.
Coach John Becker has guided Vermont to the finals four consecutive seasons and in six of his eight years as head coach. He has done it this time with a very different breed of Cat.
The last two seasons UVM was a veteran team led by two-time conference player of the year Trae Bell-Haynes and upperclassmen Payton Henson, Drew Urquhart, Cam Ward, and Dre Wills. They went a combined 56-14 overall and 31-1 in conference.
“You think about all the seniors we had,” Becker said. “Last year it was a team that had two years of incredible success that kind of just wore us out at times. The expectations, the pressure, the way we won — maybe we weren’t as edgy and sharp as maybe this team is.”
Despite having two first-team all-conference players, the 2018-19 Catamounts were one of the younger groups in the league. Senior guard Ernie Duncan and Lamb, the coaches’ unanimous choice as player of the year, have been mainstays. But behind them were unproven underclassmen — sophomores Stef Smith and Ben Shungu, and freshmen Robin Duncan, Ryan Davis and Isaiah Moll.
“With this team, there’s a lot of guys trying to prove to themselves and to everyone that they can help be a big part of a championship team,” Becker said. “It’s now Anthony’s team, it’s now Ernie Duncan’s team. The leadership is different and the style is a little bit different but it’s still a hard-nosed, defensive-minded team that’s found a way to win a lot of games.”
Lamb missed 17 games of his sophomore season with a broken foot, returning in time for the championship against UMBC, where he managed five points and two rebounds in limited minutes.
The 6-6 junior has made this season his best despite facing double-teaming defenses almost every game, averaging 21 points and 8 rebounds. What pleased Lamb even more than being named player of the year was earning a spot on the conference’s all-defensive team.
Ernie Duncan has been the steady senior, averaging 14 points a game while becoming the third UVM player to sink 300 3-point shots and moving to the top of the 3-point shooting percentage chart at 42%. And he has had the opportunity to play with two of his brothers, Robin and Everett, a redshirt junior.
Vermont has struggled to find offense behind Lamb and Duncan. The player who hopes to fill that role is Smith, who poured in a career-best 28 points while hitting 8 of 10 3-pointers against Binghamton. He is averaging 12 points but has lacked consistency.
“I’ve been up and down with my shooting but I can’t worry about that,” Smith said. “It’s up to me to be confident enough to step up and make shots. I just have to move forward and make sure my best performances come in the post season.
“Nothing else really matters at this point. All the accolades, all the little accomplishments throughout the season add up to this one game.”
Becker was honored by his peers as conference coach of the year for the fourth time, an acknowledgement that while Vermont was the preseason pick to win the league, these Catamounts navigated a much tougher path than in past years.
“We’ve got 40 minutes to go to finish this off,” he said. “We’ve got another effort (like Binghamton) in us for sure. We’ve got to make sure we stay humble and keep our nose down and execute like we did and let it fly on Saturday.”