BURLINGTON, Vt. — The University at Albany did nearly everything it set out to do in order to beat top-seeded Vermont — winners of a nation’s best 20 straight and perfect in conference play – in Saturday’s America East title game in a frenzied Patrick Gym.
The Great Danes held a team averaging 72.4 points per game to 56 points on 33.3 percent shooting.
The Catamounts top two scorers, Anthony Lamb and Trae Bell-Haynes, went a combined 4-for-23 from the field.
UA built a 9-point lead in the second half, largely silencing the sellout crowd of 3,266 crammed in the tiny facility. In its two previous conference tournament games, Vermont won by a combined 78 points.
A complementary player stepped up in Travis Charles, who went 6-for-7 from the field and led UAlbany with 16 points.
Most importantly, the Danes were within striking distance at the final media timeout, with the game tied a 50 with under four minutes to play. In fact, the game was tied with under a minute left.
UAlbany (21-13), despite being a massive underdog, did everything it set out to do . . . except win the game.
Vermont (29-5), the first team to go 16-0 in America East, won the championship as expected, but not in the way expected, beating UAlbany 56-53 in low-scoring but intense thriller that came down to the final possessions and one key play.
“We did what we set out to do,” UAlbany coach Will Brown said afterward. “We just didn’t finish.”
Brown, a perfect 5-0 in America East title games heading into Saturday morning, and his team said they expected to win, even though Vermont has been the clear class of the conference. And for more than 39 minutes, the Great Danes gave the Catamounts more than they could handle on the defensive end.
Vermont coach John Becker, who set a program win mark this year and has won 20 games each of his six seasons in Burlington, said “we couldn’t get anything going today. A lot of the credit goes to UAlbany and their toughness and their defense.
“We found a way.”
That way opened up late in the second half. With 8:45 left in the game the Danes took a 47-38 lead on a layup by David Nichols, stunning Patrick Gym that had expected a coronation. But the deep Catamounts began their comeback with a 3 by Kurt Steidl. He would later hit another 3 — the two shots would be his only points on the day — to complete a 10-1 run and tie the game at 48 with 4:37 left.
The game was a defensive slog the next couple of minutes. Two free throws by Joe Cremo — who was shut out in the first half and limited to seven points of 2 of 6 shooting — tied the game at 52 with 51 seconds left.
Then came the play that decided which America East team went to the NCAAs. Payton Henson, a 6-foot-8 forward who led Vermont with 17 points, slashed to the hoop and hit a driving layup as he was fouled by Devonte Campbell with 39 seconds left for a 3-point play.
The next possession, Cremo was called for a charge with 17 seconds left. Foul shots rounded out the game.
Nichols scored 14 points, but on only 6 of 25 shooting — and 1 of 9 from behind the arc.
“I might have done a little bit too much,” Nichols said. “I might have taken too many shots
“I don’t think I did my job today.”
Brown stepped in during the player portion of the postgame press conference to defend his point guard, who twice went to the floor holding his right knee, but stayed in the game.
“Without David Nichols, we are not in this [title game] right now,” Brown said. “Everybody, including the head coach, made some mistakes today.”
Brown said down the stretch, UAlbany made some “youthful mistakes.” Cremo said the team knew Vermont was going to make a run, and the entire game came down to a possession here and there.
“That’s the difference in a game played in the 50s,” said the Scotia-Glenville graduate, who struggled with his emotions after the game.
“It will be a long summer.”
Brown said he will discuss with the UAlbany administration whether to continue the season if the team is offered a berth in one of the lower-tiered postseason tournaments. (The NIT is out of reach.) For now, the Danes will struggle with the idea that it did everything it set out to do to pull off a massive upset. Almost.
“I’m very proud of our basketball team,” Brown said. “I thought we had a couple of opportunities in the final two minutes to win the game. We just didn’t take advantage of those opportunities.”
“Even though we lost, I’m sitting up here a proud coach right now.”
Cremo 2-6 2-4 7, Rowley 1-3 0-0 2, Campbell 3-6 2-3 8, Nichols 6-25 1-2 14, Stire 2-4 0-0 4, Anderson 0-0 0-0 0, Ennema 1-2 0-0 2, Charles 6-7 4-5 16. Totals: 21-53 9-14 53
Bell-Haynes 2-11 4-7 8, Lamb 2-12 7-8 12, Duncan 2-5 0-0 6, Steidl 2-7 0-0 6, Henson 5-8 6-7 17, Payen 0-0 0-0 0, Ward 0-0 0-0 0, Wills 3-5 1-2 7, Rohrer 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 16-48 18-24 56
Three-point shooting: UAlbany 2-15 (Cremo 1-3, Campbell 0-2, Nichols 1-9, Ennema 0-1); Vermont 6-16 (Bell-Haynes 0-2, Lamb 1-3, Duncan 2-5, Steidl 2-3, Henson 1-3). Rebounds: UAlbany 36 (Rowley 7); Vermont 32 (Lamb 10). Assists: UAlbany 10 (Cremo 4), Vermont 9 (Bell-Haynes 4). Turnovers: UAlbany 9, Vermont 5. Total fouls: UAlbany 22, Vermont 15). Fouled out: Lamb. Technicals: None. Attendance: 3,266.
Reach Executive Sports Editor Mark McGuire at 395-3105, [email protected] or @MJMcGuire on Twitter.