This was the reason that fifth-year senior Jacob Iati returned to the University at Albany roster this year, rather than take a job as a graduate assistant.
A non-factor in the previous two games against Vermont, scoring just two points on 1-for-17 shooting, Iati drained two three-pointers on his only two shots from the floor and finished with eight points in the final 2:38 to lift the Great Danes to a 53-49 upset victory over second-seeded Vermont in the championship game of the America East Conference tournament Saturday at Patrick Gym.
The vicory vaults UAlbany (24-10) into the NCAA tournament brackets for the third time in school history, earning the conference’s automatic bid. The Danes will learn their opponent and position in the draw during the Selection Show on CBS (Ch. 6) tonight from 6-7 p.m.
The team will assemble at Hall of Fame Room at SEFCU Arena to watch.
UAlbany, seeded fourth, became the lowest seed to win the title. It was the third America East Conference tournament crown for the Great Danes, who also won in 2006 and 2007. All three titles came at the expense of the Catamounts, including two at raucous Patrick Gym.
Senior guard Mike Black led the Great Danes with 14 points and was named the Reggie Lewis Most Outstanding Player of the tournament.
Fresh off their semifinal victory over Stony Brook last week, the Great Danes completed a sweep over their two toughest rivals. The Great Danes had lost their last eight games to Vermont, which carried a 25-8 lead in the all-time series.
“I’m proud of my guys. They beat a very good team in a hostile environment,” said UAlbany head coach Will Brown. “I told our guys there was no pressure on us. We imposed our will on them. I told our guys we could win this game if we didn’t turn the ball over.”
Down by seven (38-31) with 9:26 remaining, Vermont fought back by dominating the glass (37-21 edge in rebounding) to eventually tie the score twice at 41-41 and 43-43.
Sandro Carissimo scored three straight baskets, including a driving layup that gave the Cats a 45-43 led with 2:59 to go.
But then came Iati time.
The York, Pa., native hit back-to-back treys on his only two shots of the game to give the Great Danes a 49-45 lead, and he tacked on two clutch free throws with 19.4 seconds left for a 51-47 edge.
Although John Puk missed three straight foul shots that would have given the Danes some breathing room and Luke Apfeld hit a hook shot off an offensive rebound to slice the deficit to 49-47, Iati’s free throws and then two more from Puk with 14.6 remaining sealed the win.
“It felt like it took 100 attempts to get Jacob free to hit those shots,” said Brown. ‘That was a gutsy performance.”
“They played better than us today, and they deserved to win today,” said Vermont head coach John Becker, whose team finished 21-11. “Iati gets loose for a couple of threes, and to his credit, he knocked down some key shots, just like a senior is supposed to do.”
“This is what I came back for,” said an emotional Iati, who was the Great Danes’ second leading scorer this year at 12.2 ppg. “This is the greatest feeling in my life.
“I was going to stay within our offense,” said Iati about not trying to force his shot against Vermont’s pressure defense. “I don’t care if I score, but if you give me open some shots, I’ll take them. I was waiting for the opportunity, both times I had good looks.”
Vermont nearly knocked the Great Danes out of the gym with a 10-0 run to start the game, but the Great Danes battled back with an 11-0 spurt and eventually outscored the Cats, 21-4, to grab a 21-14 cushion with 5:11 left in the half. The Danes went into the intermission ahead, 28-20.
“We weathered the storm,” said Brown.
The beginning of the second half was also dominated by the Cats, as they held the Danes without a basket for the first five minutes. But junior Luke Devlin, who made all six shots from the floor and finished with 12 points, hit a couple of baseline jumpers to ignite the Danes’ offense.
Despite Vermont’s work on the boards, the Cats couldn’t score against UAlbany’s tough defense, which held Vermont to just 38 percent in the first half.
Brown has been Iati’s biggest supporter all year, even when it looked like several injuries might push Iati to the bench.
“He’s a winner,” Brown said. “That kid gave me the biggest hug after the game and said thank you for bringing him back.
“We came in here with no fear,” said Brown. “I told our guys to stop talking and to finish the job.”
“We beat them when it counted,” Black said about the Danes finally beating the top two teams in the league in back-to-back games. “We regained our composure after that slow start. Iati stepped up and made some big threes for us.”
Despite a 36-20 advantage in the paint and a big edge on the boards, UAlbany’s bench outscored Vermont’s, 27-9. The Danes also scored 18 points off 14 Vermont turnovers.
Iati 2-2 2-2 8, Black 5-13 2-2 14, Rowley 0-2 0-0 0, Johnson 0-5 0-0 0, Puk 1-1 2-5 4, Evans 1-4 0-0 2, Devlin 6-6 0-0 12, Hooley 3-6 2-3 8, Metcalf 2-2 1-1 5. Totals 20-41 9-13 53.
Voelkel 2-4 0-1 4, Blue 4-10 1-3 10, Carissimo 3-6 1-2 7, Rugg 4-8 2-3 10, O’Day 4-8 1-1 9, Apfeld 3-9 1-1 7, Elbaum 0-0 0-0 0, Kilpatrick 1-1 0-0 2, Rusin 0-5 0-0 0, Crenca 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 21-52 6-11 49.
Halftime—Albany (NY) 28-20. 3-Point Goals—Albany (NY) 4-12 (Iati 2-2, Black 2-5, Johnson 0-1, Evans 0-2, Hooley 0-2), Vermont 1-14 (Blue 1-4, Rugg 0-1, Carissimo 0-1, Voelkel 0-1, Apfeld 0-3, Rusin 0-4). Fouled Out—Carissimo. Rebounds—Albany (NY) 21 (Puk 6), Vermont 37 (Voelkel 10). Assists—Albany (NY) 11 (Hooley 4), Vermont 7 (Voelkel 3). Total Fouls—Albany (NY) 17, Vermont 17. A—3,266.