How Will You Remember the Class of 2020?
The 2019-20 season was another memorable and historic year for the Vermont Catamounts. The Cats finished the year with a 26-7 record that included capturing the programs 11th America East Regular Season Championship (4th straight), along with being awarded the America East Conference Tournament Championship for the third time in the last four years. Vermont all but swept the America East conference awards as well, including Coach John Becker winning America East Coach of the Year for a record 5th time.
Despite all the accolades, this past season ended on a bittersweet note. Due to the Covid-19 outbreak, the NCAA was forced to cancel the entire tournament, leaving die-hard fans across the nation to wonder what could have been. Vermont was scheduled to play Hartford for the America East Title, but as the dominos across the country began to fall, so did the America East. By virtue of their number one seeding, the Catamounts were awarded the America East Tournament Title. Obviously it feels good knowing that all the hard work these players put in was being recognized, but as true competitors, you know this team would have much rather earned the title, rather than have it given to them.
While the 2019-20 season will forever bear an asterisk next to its name, Covid-19 cannot take away the unforgettable moments this Catamount team got to be a part of. From stunning St. Johns at the buzzer, to Josh Speidel scoring his first career points, it was a special time to be a Catamount fan. Below are the top five games/moments from this past season. Don’t forget the tissues.
1. Vermont vs. Albany 03/03/20
On a brisk Tuesday night in early March, Vermont was scheduled to match up with long time foe Albany. It was the final game of the regular season for a Cats team that had already captured their 11th America East regular season crown. Vermont could’ve easily taken the night off, as there was essentially nothing to play for. But it was senior night. A very special senior night.
Daniel Giddens, Everett Duncan, Anthony Lamb and Josh Speidel. These were the four players set to move on from Burlington after the season. Giddens, a grad transfer, had become a fan-favorite with his monstrous dunks and defensive hustle. Duncan, like his brother Ernie before him, had become a deadly three-point shooter and was the second of the three Duncan brothers to graduate from UVM. Lamb, was just some kid from upstate New York who really didn’t do much, except become one of the all-time greatest players in Catamount history. And then there’s Josh Speidel. By now you know his story – Josh became an inspiration to so many the second he stepped foot on campus. John Becker said it was no coincidence Vermont has had their best overall record during Josh’s tenure with the team. The pregame ceremonies kicked off a few teary eyes and applause from the sold out crowd at Patrick Gymnasium, but what came next would be one of the most unforgettable moments in Catamount history.
Before the game, John Becker and Albany coach Will Brown had agreed to allow Albany to score the first basket, followed by allowing Josh Spidel to score his first career points. Sure enough, after Albany hit a lay-up off the opening tip, Vermont came down the court with the sold out crowd rising to their feet in anticipation. Originally, the plan was to just give Josh the ball for a lay-up attempt, but Josh insisted that everyone needed to touch the ball before he could score. It’s this type of “we, not me” mentality that made Josh so special. Once everyone had gotten a touch, Everett Duncan fed it to Josh down low, where he gathered himself and sank his first and only career attempt. Patrick Gym erupted with cheers, as Josh was met with high-fives and hugs from both Vermont and Albany players. As Josh walked towards the bench to check out, he was met by Coach Becker who embraced Josh while desperately trying to hold back his own tears. I promise you, there was not a single dry-eye in that building.
Vermont would later go on to beat Albany. Kudos to John Becker, along with the rest of the team for being able to regain their composure after being overcome with such a whirlwind of emotions. In the end, the final score was never going to matter. This night was about recognizing the class of 2020 and all of their hard work and accomplishments. Giddens, Duncan and Lamb truly embodied what it meant to be a Catamount, but it was Josh that stole the show – and rightfully so. Josh’s incredible story was picked up nationally by media outlets all across the country. As Catamount fans, we’ll never be able to thank Josh and the rest of these fine young men enough for all the sacrifices they’ve made, but we will always love our Cats and we will always be #JoshStrong.
2. Vermont at St. Johns 11/16/19
Going into their match up with St. Johns, there was real buzz that this was the year Vermont would finally get that long-awaited signature win over a big name program. Granted, St. Johns has fallen off to an extent, but the Red Storm are still considered a very well respected and recognizable program. The Catamounts arrived in the Big Apple ready to take on the Red Storm, as both teams prepared to put their respective undefeated records (3-0) on the line.
Early on it was a defensive back and forth battle between both teams. A slight breakdown towards the end of the first half saw St. Johns take 31-26 into halftime. The Red Storm had taken control of the momentum and their stifling defense was frustrating the Cats on the offensive end. Trailing at halftime was nothing new for Coach Becker and Catamounts, as all three of their previous games were within four points at the end of the first mark.
Good coaches, whether winning or losing, are able to make the right adjustments at halftime that will ultimately provide their team with the best chance of winning. Luckily for Vermont, they have a coach by the name of John Becker who since joining Vermont has posted an astonishing 219-91 record. Well lo and behold, Coach Becker and his staff once again were able to adjust their game plan accordingly, shredding apart the Red Storms seemingly stout defense to the tune of 44 second half points.
From the start of the second half horn, the Catamounts played with a fiery intensity that was missing from their first half performance. As the shots began to fall, the Cats looked far more composed and confident when attacking the basket. Led by star forward Anthony Lamb (23 points) the Cats were able to retake the lead. Stef Smith and Everett Duncan each chipped in 17 points, hitting big time shots to help carry momentum into the final minutes.
Just when it appeared Vermont was finally going to knock off their Big East foe, St. Johns came storming back (no pun intended). With just 30 seconds remaining in regulation, the Red Storm brought it to a one point game after Mustapha Heron (14 points) hit a three from the top of the arc. Trailing the Cats 66-65, St. Johns elected to foul, sending Vermont’s best free throw shooter, Everett Duncan, to the stripe. Duncan would hit both shots, pushing the lead back to three, but on the Red Storms ensuing possession, Rasheem Dunn (13 points) would sink another three-pointer for St. Johns, tying the game with 19.3 ticks remaining.
After a timeout from Vermont, the Catamounts walked back onto the court with no plans of sending this game to overtime. After inbounding the ball and killing a few seconds off the clock, Vermont would spread wide giving Anthony Lamb a chance to go one-on-one against Heron with the game hanging in the balance. With around 6 seconds left Lamb would make his move. A few jabs and ball fakes proved to give Lamb just enough separation to get to the foul line, where he’d pull-up from 17 feet out over two St. John defenders. All of Carnesecca Arena watched as Lamb’s elbow jumper sank through the back of the net, giving Vermont a two-point lead with 1.9 seconds remaining.
The Catamounts won the game, pushing their undefeated record to 4-0 for the first time since the 1977-78 campaign. Coach Becker called it a big time win for a Vermont program that had been waiting for this moment for a long time. Funny enough, the next game on this list would actually be Vermont’s next game as well, following their now upset of St. Johns. Any guesses on who that might be?
3. Vermont at Virginia 11/19/19
Three days after Anthony Lamb and Vermont Catamounts stunned St. Johns at the buzzer, the Cats ventured down to Charlottesville, VA to take on Tony Bennett and the defending national champions, Virginia Cavaliers. Going into the contest, Virginia was undefeated, nationally ranked in the AP Top 25 poll and boasted one of the top defenses in the country, holding their opponents to an average of 36.6 points a game. While Tony Bennett has long been known for his smothering defenses, that level of defensive commitment is completely unheard of in today’s game.
In the days leading up to their match-up with the Cavaliers, the Cats had a growing buzz around them. Media outlets such as Barstool Sports had begun to show them praise (thank you, Jake Marsh). Vermont had even garnered some national recognition, receiving a few votes in the AP Top 25 poll. In recent years Vermont had been able to battle top programs such as Kansas, Kentucky and Purdue down to the wire – in fact, Kentucky coach John Calipari couldn’t believe just how good of a program Vermont had become. Coach Becker and the Catamounts were riding high off their signature win from just three days ago, but would he be able to keep his players focused on the task ahead? Could Vermont really stun the defending national champs?
Unlike Coach Cal, Tony Bennett was well aware of just how dangerous the Catamounts really are. Far from his last encounter with a small school out of the America East, Coach Bennett was hellbent on ensuring there would be no upset alerts in Charlottesville today.
The game tipped off with Vermont charging out of the gate to take a 7-0 lead over the defending champs. The Cavaliers would respond by going on an 11-0 run of their own to take back control. From there, it was a defensive back and forth battle between the two teams, but Virginia’s Mamadi Diakite would help balloon their lead to ten with just under three minutes in the half. The Catamounts were struggling mightily to get any sort of offensive consistency going, as Tony Bennett’s signature defense was suffocating the Cats. Luckily, Anthony Lamb was able to bank in a three-pointer at the end of the half, cutting the lead to 24-18 and stealing some momentum going into the break.
It wasn’t pretty, but the Cats were hanging in there – albeit barely. These types of first half scoring droughts were unfortunately becoming all too common for the Catamounts, but after dropping 44 second half points on St. Johns just three days ago, Coach Becker knew the type of resiliency his players were capable of. Virginia’s defense was no joke and Vermont looked out-matched. Someone needed to step up. Enter Anthony Lamb.
The second half began in similar fashion to what we saw throughout the first. Defense, defense, defense. Neither team would give an inch. And then it happened. Lamb, who had been struggling to find any sort of consistency from beyond the arc on season hit a big time three. And then he hit another. And then another. Lamb had caught fire and Tony Bennett was feeling the heat. Jumpers, free-throws, lay-ups, Lamb was a one-man wrecking crew, attacking from all angles of the court. Virginia’s best defender and future NBA draft pick, Diakite tried to slow Lamb down, but even with his towering length, Lamb was able to carve him up.
Now it wasn’t quite a Reggie Miller-esque shooting performance, but in a two-minute span Lamb dropped 11 straight points for the Cats, giving Vermont a 34-31 lead with just over 12 minutes left in regulation. The senior captain would hit four of his six second half three-pointers before the halfway mark. From that point, Virginia buckled down defensively, but Lamb would hit another from deep, giving the Cats a 40-36 lead with just under ten minutes to play.
The game quickly became a back and forth affair, as Tony Bennett and Cavaliers caved in on Lamb, forcing someone else to step up and beat them. Unfortunately Virginia’s strategy succeeded, as the Catamounts struggled to find much rhythm offensively outside of Lamb. This Cavalier defense is considered the best in the nation and they proved it today, as excluding Lamb, the entire Catamount team would finish with a total of 25 points on a putrid 10-31 shooting.
Vermont fought hard to the end, holding a one-point lead with just over five minutes left in regulation, but Virginia would make their run, scoring nine straight to ultimately put the game out of reach. The Catamounts would eventually fall to the defending champions 61-55, as they ran out of gas in the closing minutes. For all those gambler’s out there, UVM did end up covering the spread and as the old saying goes, “good teams win, great teams cover.”
Despite the loss for Vermont, there were plenty of positives to take away from their performance against the defending national champions. Virginia’s defense had appeared unbreakable, as they were allowing an average of 36.6 points a game. Vermont dropped 55. Since Tony Bennett took over the reigns at Virginia in 2009, only ten players have ever been able to drop at least 30 points on his world-class defense. Anthony Lamb would finish with exactly 30 points, becoming just the 11th player of all time to do so. It was a bittersweet feeling, as Vermont had come oh-so-close yet again. For now, that elusive upset win is still out there waiting. 2020 has been such a wild year already that nothing feels real anymore. Who knows, maybe we’ll finally see John Becker and the Catamounts capture that trademark win come November.
4. Vermont vs. Brown 10/26/19
Now this next game might have to come with an asterisk attached since it was just an exhibition and technically didn’t count towards the Catamounts season. The reason this game is included isn’t because someone dropped a 50-burger or broke any sort of record. In fact, the significance of this game had nothing to do with any of the players. The reason this particular game is so special is because it was the night two of the most iconic and legendary Catamounts of all time would have their numbers lifted to rafters.
The game itself was essentially an afterthought, like going to a Jenefier Lopez and Shakira concert and there just happens to be a football game happening in between. In case you were wondering, Vermont would go on to beat Brown rather easily to a final of 70-59, but the sell-out crowd at Patrick Gymnasium couldn’t have cared less about the outcome between these two teams. They had all packed into that old, tiny gym for two reasons. Taylor Coppenrath and T.J. Sorrentine. Instead of divulging into the game, let’s look back briefly on the illustrious careers of these two fine young men.
Coppenrath and Sorrentine joined the Catamounts during the Tom Brennan era at the start of the 21st century. Before Sorrentine and Coppenrath donned the green and gold, the Catamounts had been pretty irrelevant. From the course of 1990-2000 the Cats regular season record was a measly 135-141, with only one (91-92) America East playoff victory to show for it. With the exception of Jeff Fisher, nobody on Earth should be proud of that record. When Coppenrath and Sorrentine first stepped foot on campus they were nobodies, but by the time they left, they had become Catamount legends.
Taylor Coppenrath grew up in northern Vermont where he attended St. Johnsbury Academy. Despite not playing varsity basketball till his junior year of high school he would go on to win the 2000 Gatorade Player of the Year for the state of Vermont. After committing to UVM, Coppenrath ended up redshirting his freshman year. Nobody would’ve guessed that the big, quiet, country boy who was essentially a walk-on project would end up as one of the greatest players in Vermont history. During his four-year career, Coppenrath would finish as UVM’s second all-time leading scorer (2,442 points) as well as becoming a three-time America East Player of the Year award winner.
During the tail end of the 2003-04 season, Coppenrath would break his wrist and be forced to sit out while tending to his injury. Vermont managed to advance all the way to a second consecutive America East Conference Title game where they were scheduled to square off against Maine for the chance to make the NCAA Tournament. Injured wrist be damned, as Coppenrath came charging out the locker room to an absolutely electric crowd in front of a sold out arena at Patrick Gym. In one of the most iconic moments of his career, Coppenrath would drop 43 points in a win over rival Maine en route to a second consecutive America East Conference Title and NCAA tournament appearance.
Coppenrath would go on to receive numerous more awards and accolades over the course of his distinguished career at Vermont, including being the only America East player to ever become a finalist for the John Wooden National Player of Year award. However, his greatest victory could not have been possible if not for his close friend and teammate, T.J. Sorrentine.
T.J. Sorrentine grew up in Rhode Island where he was quite the star in the making. He led his high school of St. Raphaels to back-to-back state championships, while also winning the 2000 Gatorade Player of the Year for the state of Rhode Island along the way. During his freshman campaign for Vermont, Sorrentine made an immediate impact. He led the team in assists, finished second in scoring and was named the America East Rookie of Year.
In 2002, the combination of Sorrentine and Coppenrath led Vermont to the program’s first ever 20+ win season. Sorrentine averaged close to 19 points a game, while also dishing out an average of 4 assists en route to winning the America East Player of the Year award. Unfortunately, at the start of the 2002-03 season, Sorrentine would break both his wrists and be forced to redshirt while sitting out the entire year. He’d return a year later where the duo of himself and Coppenrath would once again lead the charge for a Vermont team that would eventually make the NCAA Tournament.
Despite the newfound success Vermont was experiencing, they’d been unable to get past the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The 2004-05 season was set to be both Coppenrath and Sorrentine’s last dance and boy did they make it special. The two seniors would help guide Vermont to a then program record 25 win season, along with capturing their third straight America East Conference Championship.
Thanks to their strong regular season record, the Cats were able to secure a 13-seed for the upcoming tournament, but drew defending national champion Syracuse as their first round opponent. The game took place just a stone’s throw away in Worcester, MA as Catamount fans flocked to western Massachusetts to cheer on their seniors last hurrah. By now you should have a good guess on what happens next.
With 1:10 remaining in overtime, Sorrentine would pull up from deep beyond the arc, or as Gus Johnson might say, “from the parking lot” and bury a three-pointer, giving the Catamounts a 59-55 lead. Vermont would stun the defending national champions 60-57, winning their first ever NCAA Tournament game while becoming entrenched as true underdog legends. Taylor Coppenrath, T.J. Sorrentine and Coach Tom Brennan would all sail off into the sunset, each leaving behind a legacy that will forever be intertwined with each other.
Taylor Coppenrath and T.J. Sorrentine didn’t change the culture at Vermont – they built an entire new one. They were the foundation for what we see today. 12 straight 20+ win seasons, 11 America East Regular Season Championships and an endless amount of awards and accolades to a supporting cast of players and coaches that continue to build off their legacy. From Marqus Blakey and Brian Voelkel to Trae Bell-Haynes and Anthony Lamb, Vermont has been able to find these type of special players in large part because of the culture that was established by the likes of Coppenrath and Sorrentine. From Catamount fans everywhere, thank you Taylor and thank you T.J.
5. Vermont vs. UMBC 03/10/20
Funny enough, the last game on the list was actually the most impactful in terms of Vermont’s goal of making the NCAA Tournament. Virginia and St. Johns were both out of conference affairs and while they might have helped with seeding, neither game affected the Catamounts chances of making the tournament. Albany and Brown both provided special moments for Catamount fans, but the Brown contest was merely a glorified scrimmage and Albany, while part of the in-conference schedule, was the last game of the regular season for a Catamount team that had already wrapped up the number one seed for upcoming the conference tournament.
Ever since Jarius Lyles hit the game-winning three in the America East Championship game, stunning Vermont in front of a sold out Patrick Gymnasium, it seems like UMBC has been a thorn in Vermont’s side that they just can’t get rid of. Vermont was able to find redemption the following year, as they matched up once again against UMBC with the America East Title on the line. The Cats wouldn’t let this one slip away, as they rolled past UMBC, advancing to the NCAA Tournament once again. Some say this win wouldn’t have been possible without a special someone in the crowd, but that’s beside the point.
Nonetheless, about three weeks prior to their semi-final contest, UMBC would once again upset the Catamounts on their home court at Patrick gym, this time ending the Cats 12 game winning streak in the process. Over these past few years Vermont has undeniably been the best team in the America East, but for some reason Ryan Odom and UMBC Retrievers have found a way to topple Goliath. We all know what UMBC was able to do to Virginia, but this is a team that consistently loses to Binghamton. BINGHAMTON! How this UMBC team has managed to beat both Vermont and Virginia, but lose to one of the worst teams in the country will forever be one of life’s unsolved mysteries.
Safe to say the Catamount faithful was feeling a little anxious going into this semi-final match-up. The game began as many would expect with the two America East foes exchanging buckets on either end. The first half consisted of a back and forth battle, but the Cats were able to build a six point lead (31-25) off buckets from Stef Smith and Anthony Lamb as we entered the four-minute media timeout. UMBC would crawl back, but the Cats managed to hold a 39-34 lead as the first half came to a close.
The second half was a roller coaster of emotions, as both teams would make stretch runs throughout the final 20 minutes. Vermont struck first, ballooning their lead up to double digits in the early minutes. UMBC would counter with a 19-9 run that saw the Retrievers get hot from long distance, tying the game at 57 a piece as the game closed in on the final eight minutes of regulation. Vermont desperately needed someone to step up and take control. Would it be Anthony Lamb? Or maybe Stef Smith? Turns out, it was Evansville, IN native Everett Duncan who would put the team on his back, once again letting all of Burlington know that “UVM runs on Duncan”.
With the game tied at 57, Duncan would lead the Cats on a 13-2 run, highlighted with two three-pointers that erupted the crowd at Patrick Gym. The Catamounts held a 70-59 advantage with just under five minutes left, but UMBC would not go gentle into that good night. Led by sophomore guard R.J. Eytle-Rock (31 points), the Retrievers pulled within four with just over a minute left, but Duncan would add to his career high 27 point performance by sinking four free-throws in the closing seconds to seal the win for Vermont for a final of 81-74.
With the win, the Catamounts became the first team to make five consecutive America East Championship Games since Drexel accomplished the feat from 1993-97. Unfortunately, Vermont’s clash with Hartford for the America East Championship would ultimately be canceled due to Covid-19. Without a doubt, this team had the makings of an NCAA Tournament worthy squad. It’s a shame the season would end on such a bittersweet note, but that’s the reality of it. In the end, I hope we can remember these Cats for what they were and not just what they could have been.
Share Your Thoughts…