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America East Tournament Notes

March 11, 2003 Columns No Comments



America East Tournament Notes

by Phil Kasiecki

The 2003 Choice Hotels International America East Tournament was held at Boston University over the past two days. The quarterfinals and semifinals featured some excellent games, with good basketball by and large. The championship game will be held at Boston University on Saturday, March 15, as the Terriers will host Vermont.

Boston University and Vermont will meet in the conference championship for the second time. The first time was 13 years ago, which is also the only time prior to this that the Catamounts have made it to the championship game.

Here are some notes on the tournament up through the semifinal games.

Karalis Impresses, Sturgill Banged Up Again

In New Hampshire’s 75-61 loss to regular season champion Boston University, the young Wildcats had a bright spot, as well as another tough setback.

Freshman swingman Ioannis Karalis, a Greek import, acquitted himself well in his first conference tournament game. He had 13 points on 5-9 shooting and was active at both ends of the floor. The left-hander has had his moments this season and looks like he’ll be a nice a player down the road for Phil Rowe’s team.

Meanwhile, power forward Ben Sturgill suffered another setback. The 6’7″ sophomore, who has played very well in the final weeks of the season, dislocated his shoulder in the first half and did not return. Sturgill has battled injuries for much of his young career, and just recently he has been healthy and showing what he is capable of doing. In the last four games of the regular season, he averaged 18.5 points. A very aggressive post player with good moves, he gave the Terriers trouble, drawing fouls and scoring 8 points in 12 minutes before the injury.

Senior Jeff Senulis, who scored a career-high 22 points in his final game, talked about Sturgill’s loss.

“Ben’s played really well for us the past couple of games,” he said. “Anytime you lose a guy like that, it’s a big loss.”

The Wildcats have just two seniors, so they will be an experienced team next season. Rowe has the program moving in the right direction, as they have good young players on the perimeter to build around in freshmen Karalis, Shejdie Childs, and Ronnie Dennis, along with sophomore Roland Williams. Juniors Marcus Bullock and Griffin Walker figure to be the veteran leaders next season in the backcourt, while the frontcourt will have experience with Kyle Peterson and Sturgill.

Experience Pays Off For the Freshman and the Warrior

His struggles in the semifinal game aside, Jose Juan Barea is no ordinary freshman, and not just in terms of his talent.

His 38 points in the quarterfinals on Sunday set a Northeastern record for points in a postseason game and was the fourth-highest total in America East Tournament history, capped off by the game-winning three-pointer from just inside the NBA line with 0.8 seconds left. But head coach Ron Everhart emphasized that this should not be shocking to anyone.

“I think one thing you have to remember, too, is that this gentleman won a gold medal this summer with 18 and under at the Tournament of the Americas down in Venezuela,” Everhart said. “So it’s not like he hasn’t been in these positions before.”

He went on to emphasize that many of Barea’s teammates are battle-tested, from playing at top high schools and junior colleges, and it has shown during the season.

“They’ve executed like veteran guys,” he added.

For Barea, the game was a chance to prove himself after Albany freshman Jamar Wilson won the conference’s Rookie of the Year award the night before.

“I really wanted that award,” Barea said, before stating that it was a simple matter of playing the game. “Last two games, I haven’t been playing my game. I came out in attack mode, I know they’re a good team with the big guy under the basket. I don’t know, I was playing good, so I kept shooting.”

When junior Sylbrin Robinson was asked what his role was, and he said it was largely to complement Barea and “keep him going”, Barea joked that Robinson is “the daddy, the daddy” with a big grin. But Robinson talked about the great offensive talent, feeling he’s just a role player, while his head coach had much praise for him.

“I’m just a role player, I’m just playing behind the shadows,” Robinson said.

“He’s a warrior,” Everhart said, adding that the third-team all-America East forward has been banged up a lot and continued to play well. “He is absolutely a warrior. You’ve got to remember, when a football player gets a dislocated elbow, they’re out for standard six weeks. This kid was back in a week and a half. Now he’s still playing one-armed – that’s why he lost some balls out of bounds – but the effort he gave today… I tell you this, I couldn’t be more proud of anybody or anything than I am of Sylbrin Robinson and the effort he gave today.

“Sylbrin Robinson, in terms of what he’s done to overcome the injury situation that he’s in, it’s phenomenal. He has no tendon in his thumb, he’s been playing like that all year. He’s playing with a dislocated elbow, he can’t even squeeze the ball with two hands. The type of pain that he deals with when he’s out there on the floor – for him to do the things that he did today against the front line that Maine has, I thought was incredible.”

Robinson had to play through foul trouble in the semifinal game and struggled. With the season now over, he can take of the injuries he’s battled through (he needs two surgeries). The same can be said of sophomore guard Aaron Davis, who didn’t practice most of the season because his shoulder was dislocated many times, including on Monday night. His rehabilitation is expected to lock him up for much of the offseason.

With Jamaar Walker the only graduating senior, Miami transfer Marcus Barnes eligible next year and combo Bennett Davis leading a nice early recruiting class, the Huskies look like they could be contenders next season. Their holdovers will have an important year under their belt, and Everhart is hoping to take the team overseas during the summer.

A Microcosm of the Season For Maine

After their heartbreaking 71-68 loss to Northeastern in the quarterfinals, Maine head coach John Giannini had great things to say about the game itself before elaborating on the entire season.

“It was a great conference tournament game, the kind of drama and effort and inspired play from both teams that everyone looks forward to at this time of year,” Giannini said. “I don’t think you could ask for more from both teams in terms of effort. I thought we could have won just as easily as we lost.”

Senior forward Rickey White, one of three Black Bears in double figures with 12 points, echoed the sentiment.

“Everybody came out and played at another level today,” he said.

Giannini then elaborated on how Sunday’s game was a microcosm of the Black Bears’ season, as they finished 14-16.

“We struggled to meet our own expectations all year long,” he said. “In this game, we could just never get over the proverbial hump. Our two Achilles’ heals throughout the year were turnovers and free throw shooting. The turnovers have just been tragic for us all year.

“We stop people and we score a lot. The problem is, we give up a lot of our scoring opportunities with turnovers and free throw misses. Today really summarized the whole year.”

A look at the box score shows just what Giannini talked about: the Black Bears committed 15 turnovers and made just 9 of 16 free throws, with two turnovers coming in the final 68 seconds. They lost despite shooting over 47% from the field and holding Northeastern to under 42% from the field.

The Future Is Bright at Albany

Despite losing handily to Vermont in the quarterfinals and losing three senior starters, the future at Albany is bright. They have two solid cornerstones in freshmen Jamar Wilson and Levi Levine, both named to the conference’s All-Rookie team and the former winning the conference’s Rookie of the Year award.

Levine started fast on Sunday, keeping the Great Danes in the game with several early three-pointers. He would finish with 18 points. Wilson didn’t fare as well, going 3-12 from the field for 9 points while handing out 6 assists. It marked just the fourth time he did not reach double figures in his excellent freshman season.

Head coach Will Brown feels good about this team’s future, building around his two solid freshmen.

“I think Levi Levine and Jamar Wilson will be the cornerstones,” Brown said. “Levi Levine has got great leadership qualities for a young man. He plays with no fear, and he’s going to make sure that everybody works as hard as him. I think our future’s bright, this league’s getting better every day.”

He also reiterated his words of praise for Wilson.

“He’s a boy physically, and we joke about that all the time,” Brown said. “He’s that good right now and he’s a boy, and when he becomes a man physically he’s going to be a heck of a player.”

Vermont head coach Tom Brennan had words of praise for Albany as well.

“That game scared me to death,” Brennan said about looking ahead to the game in the previous week. “I think that kid is a really good young coach, I think he really gets those guys to play hard. When they get some size, when they get some people that are big, like I got people that are big, they are really going to be a force.

“If you put two big guys on their team, the quality of Sheftic and even Scotty Jones, then we got a way different game.”

Levine would certainly like to play the small forward spot, which he would be better off playing at 6’5″.

“I have to work hard just to be able to defend the three spot,” Levine said. “My main objective is to get faster and stronger for next year.”

Harrison is Doing The Job

Hartford is on the upswing under Larry Harrison, as the Hawks just completed their second consecutive season finishing third in the conference in the regular season and with more wins than the previous season. The Hawks don’t have the star power they had in the late 90s when they contended a couple of times, but this team had some good frontcourt players and one of the conference’s best players in Jerell Parker.

Parker returns next season, along with three-year starting point guard Ryan Stys, while Wayne McClinton, Pierre Johnson, Josh Odugbela and Junior Amous have finished their careers. Aaron Cook had a nice freshman season and has a promising future, so the Hawks are in good shape with veteran talent on the perimeter. Up front, they hope injury-riddled Louis Bosley can stay healthy, will need role players like Trevor Goode and Shawn Regan to step up, and contributions from newcomers such as Toronto native Alex Zimnickas will be needed as well.

Pierre Johnson is happy with the strides made as he departs.

“We turned the program around, and I think it’s going to continue to go up from here,” he said.

Harrison has brought the team from a 4-24 record in his first season to 16-13 this season. Before long, he should bring this team up to the next level.

Been There, Done That

One thing several commented on was how much the experience of Boston University meant in their semifinal win over Northeastern, especially after Northeastern once led by 14 points in the first half.

“I think what happens down the stretch is, they’ve got guys who have been in that position before,” Ron Everhart said. “This is a very good basketball program – they’re not just a good basketball team.”

“Our kids played with a lot of poise,” Terriers head coach Dennis Wolff said. “I think, second to talent, experience is a pretty good thing. I think when you have these types of situations, and you have kids that have been through this whole thing before, you have to go with who you think is doing well.

“Seymour, who didn’t have a particularly good game tonight, made one of the biggest shots of the game, so that’s the type of plays that you hope your seniors could make.”

Vermont’s Tom Brennan added similar comments in looking ahead to Saturday’s championship game.

“We need to worry about them, they don’t need to worry about us as much,” Brennan said before elaborating on the game. “They never panicked, I was just so impressed. They stayed the course. It’s because they’re older, they’ve been around, they’ve been in championship games, and they know how to play.”

A good note for the Terriers has been the play of Chaz Carr. The sophomore guard has struggled all season long, impacted in part by the death of his father during the season, but he came alive on Sunday and had a couple of key baskets on Monday night. Wolff certainly took note of his play in the quarterfinal game.

“Chaz, in the last week or so – and I don’t want to jinx him or us – has played closer to the way Chaz played last year,” he commented.

And To Think, He Almost Retired Last Year

Tom Brennan doesn’t sound like a guy who almost retired last year. The Vermont head coach has always been known to be a character, and that’s still true, but hearing him talk about his team as they reach the conference championship game, one gets the sense that he’s not leaving anytime soon.

“These kids, what they have done is absolutely unbelievable,” he said. “Unbelievable. To lose the Player of the Year (T.J. Sorrentine), and lose six straight in December, and come back and win 16 of your next 21, or whatever we have done, is just phenomenal.

“When you got a guy like (Taylor) Coppenrath, who credits everybody else for him getting the MVP, that’s when you know you got it going, that’s when you know you got the right people.”

For his part, Coppenrath, a Vermont native like many of the Catamounts, likes the sudden success the program has had.

“Having a chance to make the tournament is tremendous,” he said after leading the victory with 25 points and 9 rebounds. “I’m just having a good time.”

Brennan, who initially said he stayed because of the young men in the program, said he never imagined the Catamounts winning 20 games for the second straight season – the first time that has happened in the program’s history.

“Reality of it is, these guys are all great students, they’re all good people, they all really care about each other,” he said of his players. “It just starts at the top, it starts with Coppenrath, and T.J. too. T.J. was so devastated by having to sit out, it really, really hurt him, and yet I hear him the other day just saying, ‘I’m just so glad the team did well’, and I know he really believes that.

“I never expected that we could do this, never, and I’m the most optimistic guy in the world. But to do what we’ve done, is just a tremendous credit to those kids, because they did it, they made it happen.”

The Catamounts never won 20 or more games before winning 21 last season, and now they have done it for two straight years. The dean of America East coaches in his 17th season, Brennan talked about how the recent success has changed things for the team in Burlington, an area known more for hockey over the years.

“We’ve really become fashionable up there, people love this team,” he said. “You can see how many people come down to here for a 9:30 game on a Monday night. I’ve been here for 17 years, and we were not good for a lot of those years. And no one ever did anything to me except take care of me, to tell me to hang in there, to believe.

“How many guys can stay in a place 18 years and not get any nasty letters, for God’s Sake? At least when they come, Rick (Farnham, the athletic director) doesn’t show them to me, but as far as I’m concerned I’ve never gotten any.”

Brennan’s career didn’t start out with glory years, but he’s had the support all along and is grateful for it now that the team is experiencing unprecedented success.

“The fact that we’re in the final game is a tremendous tribute to our program,” he said. “I’m just blessed, I’m just really blessed, because not many people start out 22-88 and get a chance to finish. It just doesn’t happen in this business. I’ve had wonderful guys, I’ve just been very blessed, I’ve been very, very lucky, and the only good thing about me is that I appreciate that. I appreciate every minute of it.”

Looking ahead to the championship game, the next five days will be fun for him, even with having to plan for Boston University.

“The good news is, I get to shake hands for five days before I got to worry about it, and that’s a real fun part of the job for me,” he quipped.

It’s Not Official

In 17 years of watching basketball at the high school, college and NBA levels, I have never seen a worse job of officiating than what I saw in the first semifinal game on Monday night between Northeastern and Boston University.

The officials not only called the game very tightly, sapping much flow from the game, but they also never did anything to quell the tempers as the game wore on. In addition to not taking control when the fouls got harder and harder – until they were worthy of technical fouls – they also called fouls on the wrong player on two occasions and had to talk things over. Ultimately, the officiating did not favor one team (at least not sufficiently to make a difference in the outcome), but it contributed to the game being ugly and less pleasant to watch.

Adding to it, Northeastern head coach Ron Everhart said after the game that he got his technical foul in response to something one of the officials said to him.

“I was upset at myself for getting the technical foul, because the official yelled over, ‘You guys have no class’, and I guess I feel like I’ve got to protect my players,” Everhart said.

He still kept his sense of humor better than many who witnessed the game. While the officiating got so bad that many of the fans on all sides chanted “The referees suck” all together, Everhart offered a quip after the game.

“They were fortunate that the game was on television, because they used the monitor a lot this evening,” he said.

Granted, the two schools are bitter cross-town rivals, but the officials could have done something to try and nip this in the bud. Late in the first half, one could clearly see that tempers were ready to flare at any moment, and it all came to fruition in the second half as four players were called for technical fouls and a brief melee broke out as well.

Showing Up

For both days, the attendance was well below capacity, though the crowds were lively when the local teams played. Vermont and Hartford also had good fan turnouts, but the attendance in the second session of Sunday – Vermont’s win over Albany and Hartford’s win over Stony Brook – was just over 800. For the first session Sunday and the semifinals on Monday night, attendance topped 1,500 fans, which was not far off from last season’s total. Those fans were in for a treat with the second game, one of the best games all season.

Monday night’s crowd featured members of the Northeastern football team, as well as members of the women’s basketball team. Several of the women’s players wore shirts that spelled out “GO HUSKIES”, lending their support before they head to Hartford for the America East Women’s Tournament this weekend.

     

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