Headed to the Big Dance
No. 13 Seeded Catamounts to Face No. 4 Purdue in First Round of NCAA Tournament
- By Jon Reidel
One year after a quiet bus ride back to Burlington following a crushing loss to Stony Brook in the America East Championship, the men’s basketball team was celebrating in the middle of Patrick Gymnasium with hundreds of fans who stormed the court after a dramatic 56-53 victory over Albany.
The thrilling come-from-behind win capped off a historic season for the Catamounts (29-5) and set up a first-round NCAA matchup against No. 4 Purdue (25-7) on March 16 in Milwaukee. Players, coaches, alumni and fans cheered the announcement Sunday at the UVM Alumni House (pictured below) when CBS revealed the NCAA bracket and the Catamounts' No. 13 seed.
“We’re going to try to play as long as we can and continue to do things that no other Vermont Catamount team has done or no other America East team has ever done,” said Head Coach John Becker, one of only seven active coaches in America with 20 wins in his first six seasons at a Division I school. “We continue to want to be the best team to ever play in this league.”
UVM enters the NCAA tournament with the longest winning streak in the nation at 21 games and the most wins in school history. It didn’t come easy on Saturday for the Catamounts, who trailed 47-38 with 8:45 left in the game. But UVM’s league-leading defense, ranked 10th in the nation, shut down the Great Danes, allowing the Cats to take a 55-52 lead with 39 seconds remaining courtesy of a three-point play by game-high scorer Payton Henson, pictured below (17 points).
The win ensured UVM’s sixth trip to the NCAA tournament – all since 2003 – and set a new conference record for wins in a season. Players talked after the game about how the disappointment of missing the Big Dance last year motivated them to work hard, so it wouldn’t happen again. Motivational posters highlighting the Stony Brook loss that hung in the locker room all year came down after the title-clinching win on Saturday along with the nets in Patrick Gym.
“That was a long trip back [from Stony Brook] and that one hurt because you only get so many opportunities with games like this,” said senior Dre Wills, who was named America East Defensive Player of the Year. “When we got here this time, we wanted to make the most of it.”
Senior Alyssa Annino, who was at the Stony Brook game last year, said going home for spring break and missing the game was not an option. She was joined by a large contingent of other students who delayed their spring break plans to contribute to the boisterous sellout crowd of 3,266. “There was no way I was going to miss this game,” said the Middletown, CT, native. “The Stony Brook game was bad, but not this year. This was redemption.”
For Becker, the victory marked another milestone in a long journey to Burlington that started a decade ago when he took a job as UVM’s director of basketball operations for $10,000 a year. “I don’t know why so many good things have happened to me and the program, but everything has worked out better than expected,” said Becker, ranked among the top 25 coaches in America by Basketball Times. “I owe a lot to my wife and kids and the university.”
UVM Athletic Director Jeff Schulman, who strongly supported the decision by then-athletic director Bob Corran to hire Becker as head coach in 2012, says the level of success under the school’s third-winningest coach of all time has surprised even him.
“It was clear that John’s values were in perfect alignment with the values of UVM Athletics,” said Schulman. “And while we were obviously confident in John’s knowledge of the game and ability to teach and recruit, I don’t think we could have envisioned six-straight 20-win seasons with postseason bids and being among the best mid-major programs in the country.”