Still Champs. Kinda.
America East regular season champs five years running. Kinda. Vermont and UMBC split their final series of the year, giving them both identical 10-4 records and a share of the America East regular season crown. Both Vermont and UMBC were supposed to play a few more games, but in typical fashion, as soon as I write about the latest scheduling updates the whole thing gets changed yet again. The America East will conclude the regular season this weekend, with the start of playoffs coming next Friday (2/26).
Vermont (2) and UMBC (1) are locked into the top two seeds, with UMBC securing the tiebreaker and earning the number one spot. As the top two seeds, Vermont and UMBC get a bye into the semi-finals, meaning that if this rivalry gets another chapter it’ll come in the America East title game. Another on-again, off-again break for Vermont. The Cats were just on pause for month, then played four games in seven days and now they’re on another two-week break period as they wait for their next opponent.
That’s a lot to digest, but let’s get back to the series at hand. Vermont and UMBC were considered the cream of the crop of the America East heading into this one and boy oh boy did they each look every bit of a true title contender. Each team showcased their strengths during their respective wins. Vermont’s offense lead by a three-headed attack of Ryan Davis, Ben Shungu and Stef Smith shot the lights out against the Retrievers in game one. However, Ryan Odom and company would put the clamps on in game two, completely changing the landscape with his tough as nails defensive approach. Vermont took game one by nine, while UMBC countered and took game two by 11. Talk about splitting hairs here.
Even with UMBC earning the number one seed, these two teams are so well coached and evenly matched, it’s hard to argue that either picked up an edge in this contest. If fans were allowed into the venues then UMBC would undoubtably get some points there, but without the crowd the deciding factor in these games will once again come down to coaching preparation and adjustments. Right now it seems like it’s only a matter of when and not if these two teams will clash again. When/if that happens, it’ll be for the America East title and ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
Game One | Thursday
Telling Stats and Notes – Vermont Catamounts
Ryan Davis – 21 points, 9-17 FG, 6 rebounds, 0 assists, 0 turnovers
Ben Shungu – 20 points, 7-10 FG, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, 4 turnovers
Team – 80 points, 29-53 FG, 10-21 3PT, 32 rebounds, 11 assists, 10 turnovers
Along with picking up at least a share of the America East regular season title, Vermont will in all likelihood be the home to the America East Player of the Year for the fifth straight year. After being named the America East Sixthman of the Year just a season ago, Ryan Davis took his game to another level this year, as he dominated the America East and should be the runaway favorite to pick up his first (and hopefully not last) AE PoY award. Vermont’s three-headed attack of Davis, Smith and Shungu were incredible in game one, but it was Davis who really spearheaded the Cats offense throughout the course of this abbreviated season. More to come on Davis and his leap to stardom, but for now he gets an internal round of applause for his brilliant season and (likely) well-deserved honors.
Outside of the Cats big three, Isaiah Powell also chipped in 11 points and 5 assists, though the rest of the Cats roster had a pretty quiet night. When you have three players going for 20+ there’s obviously going to be a stronger tendency to feed them the ball, so the lack of production elsewhere could be attributed to that. However, the lack of bench production in both of these games has be alarming for the Cats. Quality depth has long been a strength of the Cats and yet UMBC absolutely crushed Vermont with their second-string quartet. The spinzone on this is that now John Becker and Vermont have seen where they need to tighten up and ideally will be able to make the right adjustments before the conclusion of this rubber match.
Telling Stats and Notes – UMBC Retrievers
R.J. Eytle-Rock – 23 points, 8-16 FG, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 4 turnovers
Keondre Kennedy – 11 points, 5-9 FG, 2 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 turnovers
Team – 71 points, 26-58 FG, 8-22 3PT, 28 rebounds, 11 assists, 8 turnovers
Game one saw both teams go on a number of runs, essentially flipping the momentum at the drop of a hat. Yet, seemingly every time UMBC would cut into Vermont’s lead, the Cats would come storming back with a run of their to build back that cushion. Eytle-Rock looked phenomenal for the Retrievers, picking up right where he left off when he dropped 31 against the Cats in last years semi-final match-up. The junior guard had a game-high 23 to lead all scorers, though didn’t quite get enough help from his teammates to secure the win.
Kennedy and Daniel Akin easily out-matched Vermont’s second unit, as they provided a huge spark off the bench for the Retrievers. While both Vermont and UMBC have fantastic teams, the key difference in these games was just how dominate UMBC’s depth was compared to Vermont’s. Bench production will no doubt be a pivotal deciding factor should these two teams see each other again.
Before switching gears and looking over game two, we first need to address what could be UMBC’s kryptonite – the disappearance of Brandon Horvath. The big man was unbelievable to begin the year, yet now he’s hardly a factor for the Retrievers. Here’s his combined stats over these two games:
Brandon Horvath – 11 points, 5-20 FG, 0-6 3PT, 15 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 turnovers, 78 minutes
That statline is not AE PoY worthy. Horvath played the most minutes out of anyone (both Vermont and UMBC) and was largely a non-factor in both contests. 12 of his 15 rebounds did come in game two, so he does deserve some credit for corralling the boards, but overall his absences was sorely missed for UMBC. If Horvath becomes a key contributor again UMBC has a distinct advantage, while Vermont needs to shore up their depth to see the pendulum swing back in their favor. Back to the drawing board.
Game Two | Friday
Telling Stats and Notes – Vermont Catamounts
Ryan Davis – 15 points, 5-11 FG, 6 rebounds, 0 assists, 4 turnovers
Justin Mazzulla – 12 points, 4-5 FG, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 turnovers
Team – 55 points, 18-52 FG, 4-22 3PT, 33 rebounds, 6 assists, 12 turnovers
It was a frustrating night for the Cats. Davis led the way with 15 points, but only managed 22 minutes of action due to foul-trouble. John Becker said before the game that he didn’t expect the Cats to be able to shoot as effectively in game two and clearly he was right. UMBC tightened up their defense and really took away what the Cats do best – passing. The teams six assists were one of their lowest marks of the season. The Retrievers did an excellent job at denying the Cats, forcing them into a lot of careless errors and sloppy passes. As mentioned, the Cats schedule hasn’t exactly been kind to them, as they just played four games in seven days and clearly looked a step slower in this one. Two weeks off might feel like an eternity, but a little extra R&R might just be what this team needs right now.
With fatigue settling in and affecting the Cats, John Becker tried to lean on his bench a bit more, giving minutes to Aaron Deloney and Nick Fiorillo. Unfortunately, neither could provide much of a spark off the bench for the Cats. Vermont’s bench problems reared its ugly head again in this one, as the Cats second unit was outscored by UMBC 30-7. Oof. Tomas Murphy, who had a great series against Stony Brook, easily had his worse series of the season. Credit to Murphy who has dealt with nagging injuries all year and always plays with a high-motor, but he needs to clean some things up before these two teams meet again.
Telling Stats and Notes – UMBC Retrievers
R.J. Eytle-Rock – 15 points, 3-6 FG, 7 rebounds 3 assists, 2 turnovers
Keondre Kennedy – 14 points, 6-9 FG, 5 rebounds, 0 assists, 1 turnover
Team – 66 points, 19-51 FG, 5-18 3PT, 37 rebounds, 7 assists, 8 turnovers
Once again it was Eytle-Rock who led the way for the Retrievers with 15 points, with more than half of those points coming from the charity stripe. UMBC’s bench was arguably the deciding factor again, as Kennedy and Akin each chipped in 14 points to help lead the Retrievers to their first America East regular season conference title since 2008 (kinda). Kennedy and Akin brought the juice for the Retrievers, as their energy off the bench helped fuel UMBC on both ends of the court, effectively spoiling the Cats chances of winning the conference title outright.
Before wrapping up the game, there is an argument to made that some the whistles over this series were a bit erroneous. Typically the officiating is not worth delving into, but there were some strange calls. UMBC got to line 50 times over these two games, while Vermont only managed 31. There’s a strange disparity, as both teams were pretty identical in terms of total fouls so why was UMBC getting the line so much more? The officials called it how they saw it, but it was odd to watch as Vermont would find themselves in foul trouble, yet then we’d get a run of small touch fouls against UMBC, seemingly keeping both teams on the same level.
Vermont was clearly winded and tried legs lead to poor shooting and bad fouls so I’m not denying that the Cats made mistakes, though what about UMBC? They play tight hands-on defense and while there were times when we’d hear a whistle against the Retrievers for overplaying their man, it would only happen within a two-minute span before the officials decided not to call it again. Again, there really isn’t a point to this argument, but just a strange occurrence that needed to be addressed.
Outside of the timeless Maine – Binghamton rivalry, the Vermont – UMBC feud is without a doubt the best in the America East and top mid-major affairs. A third and final matchup between these two teams seems inevitable. One step at a time, but if the Cats can make it back to the America East title game you best believe this team wants another shot at UMBC. LFG.