America East Tournament In Review
by Phil Kasiecki
Injured Stars Dot Tournament Landscape
Several of America East’s top talents were not in action at the tournament due to injury. The quality of the tournament in light of their absence showed the overall depth of the conference. This was especially the case with players like Vermont’s Taylor Coppenrath, who has won the league’s Player of the Year award the last two seasons, and 2002-03 Rookie of the Year Jamar Wilson among those on the sidelines.
Wilson accompanied Albany to the tournament and is in good spirits. He injured his knee in an early season practice, but the extent wasn’t known initially and x-rays didn’t show anything. He practiced through it and finally felt well enough to play in the Great Danes’ third game of the season at Colgate, where he scored 13 points. After that, an MRI showed that he fractured the lower end of his right patella, and he had surgery in late December and called it a season.
Although sitting through the games has been hard on him, he hasn’t wasted away. He’s taken set shots with the team in game warm-ups and feels like he’s been able to learn a lot from watching the team in practice and in games. Additionally, no one has been a bigger cheerleader on the bench for this team than he has. Recently, he’s moved around more and has begun lifting, and head coach Will Brown feels he will be ready for spring workouts next month. He’s also excited about the future, as they will return everyone from this team and bring in several transfers (notably former Loyola (Md.) guard Lucious Jordan and former Boston College center Kirsten Zollner) and incoming recruits that will add depth and size to the team.
“I’m really excited to play with them,” he said of the transfers. “To be able to play man and have depth will be great for us.”
Jerell Parker has been out much of this season for Hartford after tearing the quadriceps tendon in his right knee against Maine. It’s the same knee he had surgery on last July, which is one reason he’s taking things slowly right now. While his rehab is going very well, he doesn’t expect to work out at full speed until the summer months. It’s naturally been tough on him since he’s such a competitor.
“It’s been a long, rough year, almost depressing at times,” Parker said of this season. “Not being able to get going has been tough, seeing how I could help the team at times.”
Parker has tried to help the younger guards along, saying that head coach Larry Harrison has wanted him to be his “other assistant coach” while he hasn’t been playing. He’s watched how they play and cheered his team on, but there’s only so much to be gained in the former since he already sat out a year when he transferred from Loyola-Chicago. Because of that, the school is petitioning the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility for him. Harrison said the NCAA has not indicated when they will make their decision.
Coppenrath accompanied the team and was the biggest cheerleader on the bench during the tournament as the Catamounts advanced to the championship game on Saturday against Maine. Head coach Tom Brennan said Coppenrath is in good spirits, although he would certainly like to play, adding that, “it’s been harder on me that it has been on him” (just further proof that Brennan is never at a loss for a good quote).
All in all, the quality of the tournament speaks to the depth of talent in the conference, and it’s a good sign for what’s ahead.
Vermont Keeps Accomplishing New Things
With their wins and the upset of Boston University on Saturday, Vermont will host the conference championship game on Saturday morning. It will be the first time that has happened, and this year marks the third straight 21-win season for the Catamounts, equaling the school record. It’s also the first time in program history that they have won 20 or more games three straight years, and making the semifinals of the tournament three years in a row is another first.
All of it hasn’t been lost on Brennan, who went through plenty of lean years before the recent success. The fans impress him as much as the players, and it was evident in Saturday’s semifinal win.
“It was like a home game for us,” Brennan said. “These guys (players) helped, but they (fans) won the game. You can see the love affair that this state has with this team. How many people travel, how passionate they are about these kids.”
The Catamounts got there led by former Player of the Year T.J. Sorrentine, picking up all the slack with Coppenrath (his best friend) out of action. He hit one clutch shot after another and controlled each game. He had 37 points and 9 assists in the two games, and he had good help from Germain Njila at both ends of the floor in each game. Njila came up one shy of his career high with 14 points in the semifinal win on Sunday. Also playing a key role inside was Scotty Jones, who is playing on a bad knee and whom Brennan says is “playing each game knowing it could be his last.”
Whether Coppenrath can play or not (he was quoted as saying that his season is over in the Burlington Free Press last week, but is reportedly practicing this week), the championship game should be a very good one. Both teams are playing well, and while Patrick Gym is one of the tougher places for a visiting team to play in the conference, Maine can bring in some confidence from having won at Vermont to end the regular season.
Terriers Must Now Wait It Out
After winning 23 of 24 games prior to the tournament, Boston University was upset by Stony Brook in the quarterfinals. The Terriers finish the season at 23-5 and will hope upon hope that they get into the NCAA Tournament. It’s not likely, but the NIT is a good bet to come calling after the Terriers went to the NIT last year.
“They played a terrific game, I thought they deserved to win the game,” BU head coach Dennis Wolff said of Stony Brook after the loss. “They out-played us for much of the game, they out-coached us for most of the game. I’m very disappointed for our kids. They’ve had an unbelievable season, which I hope isn’t over.”
The Terriers have quality wins at Fordham and at Michigan, but the loss to Stony Brook early in the NCAA Tournament likely finishes off any chance they have of being an at-large team. Their RPI is 82, and the loss by Southern Illinois in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament on Sunday hurts their chances that much more.
Maine Gets There With Help From All
Maine’s two victories to get to the championship game were very different games. They knocked off Binghamton in overtime on Saturday in the Bearcats’ tournament debut, then blew out Stony Brook on Sunday after the Seawolves upset Boston University on Saturday.
One thing that was apparent was that the Black Bears had a balanced attack, much as senior point guard Eric Dobson was the leader in each game. In the two games, he had a total of 31 points, 16 rebounds and 17 assists, including 11 points, 8 assists and 7 rebounds in the 78-54 semifinal win.
“I’ve often said that we go as Eric (Dobson) does, and many times I’ve emphasized the importance of the point guard position,” head coach John Giannini said after the semifinal game. “Obviously he was outstanding and continues to get better, and that has a lot to do with things.”
He had plenty of help. Kevin Reed had 33 points in the two wins, and players like Ludmil Hadjisotirov (17 points in the semifinal win) and Joe Campbell (20 points and 9 rebounds in the quarterfinal, 8 rebounds in the semifinal) inside picked up the slack for Mark Flavin, who strained his calf in the quarterfinal win and played just ten minutes in the semifinal. They also got a good two-way effort in the semifinal from David Dubois, especially slowing down Stony Brook’s Cori Spencer. And that wasn’t all, but they were perhaps the ones who stood out the most.
“This was a tremendous team win,” Giannini said of the semifinal win.
The Black Bears can bring some confidence into the championship game after winning at Vermont on the last day of the regular season. This will be their chance to finally make the NCAA Tournament, after several good finishes under Giannini that have ended short a trip to the Big Dance.
Stony Brook Plays Well, Has Much To Look Forward to
One of the biggest upsets in America East Tournament history came on Saturday afternoon as Stony Brook knocked off regular season champion Boston University. It marked just the second time in tournament history a top seed lost to a No. 8 seed, and the first time in 16 years.
When all the historical notes were read off before the postgame press conference, Seawolves head coach Nick Macarchuk remarked, “Any other negative things about this?” But the Seawolves had pulled off a monumental upset after a tough regular season, and there were a couple of keys that Macarchuk and senior guard D.J. Munir commented on.
“I told our players before the game, to beat BU we have to play a perfect game,” Macarchuk said. “Today we played a perfect game. We sustained our effort, we sustained our defense, which is very important.”
“We just tried to play as hard as we could all the time and not take a possession off,” Munir said. “We tried to keep the score low averages like 80 points a game and I don’t think we had 80 all year unless it was a double overtime game.”
Two things the Seawolves did well was beat up the Terriers inside, as they had a 38-24 edge on points in the paint, and make tough shots in the clutch en route to shooting over 54% from the field in the game.
After the game, the team was emotional. Munir was speechless, while Macarchuk said on Sunday that he couldn’t come up with the words after the game.
“I don’t even know what to say right now,” Munir said. “I don’t have any words for this. This is probably the best team we’ve played all season – that’s counting St. John’s, Boston College, and Utah.”
“I tried for 15 minutes to say something to them and I couldn’t,” Macarchuk reflected. “They were so emotional in the locker room, they were so emotional last night – there were six or seven guys just crying last night. Everyone was crying. And I started to cry, too – I said to Robbie (Emmerich, Stony Brooks’s media relations director), ‘Robbie, I can’t cry in front of these guys! Most of them hate me already!’ ”
In Sunday’s game, the Seawolves looked a little fatigued, although Macarchuk thought the short time to go over a game plan was the biggest factor.
“We just didn’t have enough time to prepare,” he said after the game. “I’m not a bright guy – my guys are bright – but we need time to try to get (the players) the information. We tried to do it last night through film, and again this morning through film.”
The Seawolves lose Munir, a key component of their early Division I years, as well as forward Mike Konopka. But the future is bright; next year they will have plenty of size, and Mitchell Beauford and Mike Popoko (who sat out the last game with an ankle problem, though the team trainer is concerned that there may be an Achilles problem) had solid freshman seasons. Bobby Santiago had a difficult sophomore year between injuries and personal tragedy, but played better in the tournament and indicated that he should be ready to have a productive junior year.
Ford Makes Triumphant Return
Charles Ford was a constant thorn in Northeastern’s side in Hartford’s upset of the Huskies on Saturday night. He scored 18 points, with all nine of his second half points coming in the final 11:03, and he was able to penetrate to the basket on a consistent basis.
Ford didn’t have the same success on Sunday, although he had a carryover early on. He scored 11 points in the first half on 4-6 shooting, scoring 10 of the Hawks’ first 19 points in nearly 13 minutes. He was then slowed by a leg cramp, as he was noticeably grimacing while on the floor later in the half, and he missed all five of his shots in the second half.
Despite the bad second half, Ford finished the season strong and looks ready to break out next season. And it all comes after he took last season off.
Ford had to deal with some personal issues after his freshman year, so the native of Upper Marlboro, MD left the school and the east coast entirely to attend the College of Southern Idaho, with the help of head coach Larry Harrison. He didn’t play basketball, but continued in school and Harrison kept in touch with him. Harrison knew Ford was unhappy out there in part from missing the game of basketball, and when Ford came back east during spring break, Harrison caught up with him and offered him a scholarship for this year.
“I didn’t want to be out here at the University of Hartford and put my team in jeopardy if I knew I wasn’t going to be out there and give it 100 percent and be focused,” Ford said. “I didn’t want to be selfish about anything. I got to give it to coach Larry Harrison, he’s behind me 100%.”
He said that the year off did him a lot of good, and when Harrison offered him the scholarship, he felt ready to return. He’s glad to be playing again, and he finished the year playing it well. He averaged 15.6 points in his final five games and scored in double figures in all but one of his final eight games. He will need to cut down on his turnovers – he had over 20 more turnovers than assists for the season – but with more offseason work and his good finish to this season, he should be primed to break out next season.
Huskies End With Disappointing Loss
Both Boston teams lost on Saturday, as Northeastern lost 79-74 to Hartford on Saturday night. The Huskies didn’t work the ball inside much against a Hawk team that lacked size, instead settling for a lot of jump shots (including 30 three-pointers, of which they made only six). Even with that, they almost won, and if they game went to overtime, they may have won a battle of attrition since the already short-handed Hawks had three players foul out and two more playing with four fouls when the game ended.
“There wasn’t a lot of strategy, the main thing is that we had bodies,” Hartford head coach Larry Harrison remarked after the game.
Where the Hawks won the game was on the glass, with a 43-27 edge, and shooting the ball, as they shot 50%. They won despite committing 23 turnovers.
The game was lost after the Huskies ran out to a 25-11 lead behind 11 points from Marcus Barnes, who scored a career-high 36 points. The Hawks responded with a 17-2 run, taking the lead for good a short time later.
“We were 6-30 from the three-point line, so that’s not consistent with the way we’ve been playing, and that really hurt us because it led to a lot of breakouts and easy baskets for Hartford,” head coach Ron Everhart said after the game. “We took quick shots, we settled for threes early in the offense, and that was a big difference.”
The Huskies made charges in the second half, but the Hawks constantly had an answer. They brought a 15-point lead back into single digits, only to see the Hawks get it back to 13 before their final run, which was cut short on a terrible intentional foul call on Javorie Wilson with 23 seconds left that sealed the game. The Hawks were up by two at the time of the call, but got the ball back after one free throw was made and sealed the game with two more free throws.
For Everhart, the called capped an evening of questionable calls, starting with the night Jose Juan Barea had. He took a pounding all night long, having to leave the game with a cut after one play, and all he got to show for that play was a technical foul and he later fouled out.
“It’s disappointing to see Jose foul out of a game with 3 questionable touch fouls on the perimeter, and take the physical abuse he took driving to the basket and get no calls,” Everhart said after the game. “I’m really disappointed in that.”
Binghamton’s Debut a Short One, But They’ll Be Back
Binghamton was finally eligible for the conference tournament this year, but its appearance was short-lived as they lost in overtime to Maine on Saturday. But the Bearcats, who entered the season having to make up for the loss of three key starters, are primed to be a real factor in future tournaments, including the prospect of hosting it down the line.
The school opened its new Events Center in January, and had two sellout crowds along the way. In the five games they played there, the average attendance was 3,893, which helped them lead the conference in attendance. It’s also one reason why the school is expected to once again put in a good bid to host the conference tournament next year.
The Bearcats lose seniors Brandon Carter and Brett Watson, but have plenty returning. Carter will be a key loss for the intangibles he brought as much as his numbers, but the Bearcats will return four starters that feature center Nick Billings and point guard Troy Hailey. Billings improved his offensive game a great deal this season, while Hailey got better as the season went along and has a promising future. Solid defender Billy Williams, Sebastian Hermenier and Alex Adediran are also among the returnees, and Joe White gives them more size inside.
All in all, the Bearcats will be a factor in seasons to come, and their new gym will certainly help with their homecourt advantage.
Albany Looks To The Future
At last, the time has come to talk about how bright next year looks for Albany. The Great Danes were competitive all season despite being short-handed, something that shouldn’t be a problem next season.
“We’ll have a lot of bodies next year, that’s the biggest thing,” Brown said. “It’s tough to stay sharp even in practice when you’ve only got seven guys. I think we learned a lot, we got better.”
The Great Danes have a four-man recruiting class coming in that will add some size, while the aforementioned transfers will also provide instant improvement. Brown said that Jordan was the team’s best player in practice even when Jamar Wilson was healthy, and he feels confident that the current players will adapt to their new roles next season.
“I thought our kids did a good job every night of competing,” head coach Will Brown said after Friday night’s season-ending 43-38 loss to New Hampshire. “It was frustrating at times, just because when you’re limited depth-wise and have a lot of young kids, you go through some growing pains.
“We were more than competitive this year, and I firmly believe that our future is bright. We’re going to be in a situation next year where we’re going to move forward and we’re going to play on deep into this tournament, I firmly believe that.”
New Hampshire Closes Out Season of Improvement
Although the wins and losses don’t look like much, the season that ended with Saturday night’s 58-50 loss to Vermont was a step forward for New Hampshire. The Wildcats finish the season at 10-20, a jump from last season’s 5-23 showing.
Craig Walls missed both games this weekend with flu-like symptoms that kept him out of the last two games of the regular season. Walls was one of the reasons the Wildcats improved this year, giving them a rebounder and another who can score in the frontcourt alongside Ben Sturgill, who again struggled with injuries at times but played very well when healthy over the last month.
The pieces are in place for the Wildcats to continue to move up next year. Marcus Bullock, Griffin Walker and Kyle Peterson move on, but key players like Walls and Sturgill head the holdovers, while Shejdie Childs and Jermaine Anderson will lead the backcourt. Damione Liddell played very well later in the season in the frontcourt, and Blagoj Janev showed plenty of promise during his stint en route to earning All-Rookie honors. New Hampshire lost some tough games during the season, dropping ten games decided by ten points or less, which shows that they were in most of the games they lost.
The point guard position has been a question mark, but it looks like Anderson will be the incumbent heading into next season. Both he and Childs are quick, can penetrate and defend, but Anderson in particular has turned it up of late. Head coach Phil Rowe and Sturgill both spoke highly of his defense.
“We talk about defense, we talk about Jermaine Anderson,” Sturgill said after he shut down Rookie of the Year Jon Iati on Friday night, as he held Iati scoreless.
“If you haven’t seen him play the last month, you’ve missed something,” Rowe said. “He’s really guarded people.”
UMBC Finishes Transition Year
Friday night’s 65-59 loss to Stony Brook concluded the first season in America East for UMBC, which had previously been a member of the Northeast Conference. The Retrievers were without head coach Tom Sullivan, as he is currently on administrative leave. The school isn’t saying anything more right now, and Randy Monroe is currently serving as the interim head coach.
This year was viewed as a transition year by Sullivan, to get a sense of the conference level. The Retrievers finished 7-21 on the season, including a 4-14 mark in America East play. Overall, players and coaches alike feel positive about the years ahead.
“It’s a big step up in conferences,” said senior guard Kareem Washington, who closed out his college career with nine points and five rebounds. “It was a tough transition, but we handled it.”
“I think it was a big step up, but I know that this is where the program wants to be and wants to go,” said junior guard Rob Gogerty, who tied his career high with 20 points in the loss. “I think in a couple of years, we’ll be right up at the top of this conference.”
With just two seniors on the roster, the Retrievers figure to improve next season. Monroe also took some positives from the team’s showing in their first America East Tournament game, where they trailed by 19 points just over three minutes into the second half before rallying to get within four.
“I think the experience that they got tonight was tremendous, and I think the experience that they got tonight will put them in a position to be better players in the near future,” Monroe said.
A Few Notable Quotes
“It’s amazing what young people can do. It’s absolutely amazing. I can’t do it anymore, my life is going down the toilet, but their lives are just beginning. It’s unbelievable what young people can do, isn’t it?” – Stony Brook head coach Nick Macarchuk after Saturday’s win over Boston University
“I knew you guys didn’t have anything to do tonight, so we just prolonged the game. Longest game I think I’ve ever been associated with.” – Hartford head coach Larry Harrison after Saturday night’s win over Northeastern
“I just wish Wally (Jon Wallingford) had 100 years of eligibility. He’s the kind of guy that, if I were a pro coach, I’d sign Wally to a long-term contract. I’m going to miss him tremendously.” – Maine head coach John Giannini
“It’s been such a good team all the way through. These guys have been really wonderful. To get 13 guys to all want the same thing, think the same thing, do the same thing, for 8 months, is difficult in anything in life. For the last 8 months we’ve had 13 guys who have all done and wanted the same things, and that’s special. People take that for granted, but that’s the challenge of coaching. Think in life: put 13 people in a room, get them to all want and think and do the same things. It doesn’t happen, but it has with these guys.” – Maine head coach John Giannini