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Vermont Rides Blakely To Road Win

February 7, 2008 Columns No Comments



Just call them the Comeback Catamounts

by Sam Perkins

HARTFORD, Conn. – With three and a half minutes remaining in, Hartford was once again surging against Vermont. The feisty Hawks, playing the role of undaunted underdogs to perfection, had wrestled the lead away from the heavily-favored and high-powered Catamounts for the third time in the second half.

After a beautiful tip-in by freshman Anthony Minor put Hartfod up five, 69-64, the momentum was once again building behind the Hawks. When Jaret Von Rosenberg stripped Mike Trimboli on the ensuing Vermont possession and shoved the ball ahead to Michael Turner, who was all alone, streaking to the basket, the game appeared to be over. Turner’s uncontested lay-up would put Hartford up by seven, and after coming back to tie or take the lead three times in the second half, only to watch the lead slip away, it would be hard to image Vermont overcoming a backbreaker like Turner’s coast to coast drive to comeback for a fourth time.

But a funny thing happened on the way to hoop for Turner, as he discovered first hand what Vermont’s opponent’s have been learning all season long: Marqus Blakely is the kind of special player that comes along once in a blue-moon in a conference like the America East, and that just when you think that you’ve seen everything that he can do, he blows your mind once again. As Turner elevated for what he felt would be an uncontested lay-up, his shot was enveloped and erased by the blur that was Blakely, the America East’s version of the human highlight film. Blakely’s block highlighted all aspects of his freakish athleticism, as Blakely caught Turner from behind despite starting a good thirty feet behind him, leapt over Turner to avoiding any body contact, and pinned the ball on the backboard at the top of the square for an instant.

Blakely’s block caromed into the hands of teammate Nick Vier, who found senior Kyle Cieplicki for a momentum-shifting three at the other end of the floor, and what should have been a seven-point lead to seal the game for Hartford was instead a two point game, with the Hawks clinging to a 69-67.

“That was the play of the year. Play of the year,” emphasized Vermont head coach Mike Lonergan after the game, adding, “he chased him down from thirty-feet away, if he doesn’t do that we’re down seven and I don’t know if we can come back. That was the play of the year for us. I didn’t think he could get there, I knew he could jump high-enough, but I didn’t think he could get there in time.”

After Blakely and Von Rosenberg traded baskets, the Catamounts high-flier came up with another momentous play, stripping Von Rosenberg at half-court, and coasting in for a thunderous two-handed slam in traffic, tying the game at 71. Blakely’s dunk drew an eruption from the Vermont bench, and sucked the energy out of the Hartford student body, whom had been a vocal backbone for the Hawks throughout the game.

“That gave us a lot of hope, the block was a dagger on defense with Kyle coming back and drilling a three,” reflected Blakely.

The Hawks still had one last charge in them, and would tie the game once more. But Vermont responded, with Trimboli hitting a huge one-handed runner on a baseline drive to put Vermont up for good, as he and Blakely went 6-6 from the free-throw line to close out the game and give Vermont a hard fought 81-76 victory.

Overshadowed by Blakely’s heroics was tremendous effort by a Hartford squad dealing with a severely depleted roster. The Hawks, already without the services center Kevin Estes as he was dealing with the effects of a concussion suffered the week before, suffered another blow when star center Warren McClendon was suspended by the team for the game due to academics. (McClendon is still eligible per NCAA standards, and the suspension is expected to only be for one game.) Without McClendon and Estes, the Hawks had no real inside presence and were matched up against the best player in the conference in Blakely.

Early on, it appeared that Blakely would be too much for Hartford to handle, as the sophomore forward threw down an alley-oop dunk over what seemed to be half of the Hawks roster. He once again raised the dunking bar another notch. Trimboli appeared to have made the perfect lob from half-court, except that Blakely out-leapt the feed. Blakely, whose head was up around the rim, had to reach back down to catch the ball around he shoulders before bringing it back up above his head for a back-board shaking dunk.

However, the Hawks were unfazed, and played incredibly physical against Blakely, putting a body on him at all times. “They played Marqus very physically, they hit him a lot, which is exactly how I would play him if I was coaching against him,” said Lonergan.

Blakely was forced into 2 of 6 shooting from the floor, and had to work for every single one of his eight first-half points. Minor played a large role in frustrating the Catamounts’ star, doing a tremendous job filling the void left by the absence of McClendon and Estes.

“I thought Anthony Minor really grew up a little bit tonight, we were playing zone but he was really locked on to Blakely,” said Hartford head coach Dan Leibovitz.

While Minor played a huge role on the defensive end, it was their normal defensive stopper who stepped his game up on the offensive end, as Turner took the ball right at Vermont early and often, scoring from all over the floor. While Turner has provided three-point shooting all season long, and continued to hit from downtown against Vermont, it was in the paint where he made maybe his biggest impact, showing off several nifty low post moves. Without McClendon, Hartford was without their lone low-post scoring threat, and would need someone to step up to force Vermont to defend the interior and free up their outside shooters, and Turner did just that, scoring 13 first half points.

“I posted up Cieplicki, and he’s smaller than me, I was just looking to penetrate, because with us being so undersized I have a four or a five man guarding me, and I can really beat them off of the dribble,” reflected Turner after the game.

Hartford went into the half with 41-32 lead, and it would have been worse had Blakely not dominated the glass, ripping down eight first half rebounds. But Blakely, whom Mike Lonergan would like to become the America East version of former UMass great Lou Roe, was not playing with the physicality that Lonergan wanted. But he has the athleticism and ability to turn into a Roe-incarnate of sorts and simply could not be denied all game long, and once again proved to be the difference-maker. He poured in a game-high 22 points and pulled down a game-high thirteen rebounds. It was only a matter of time before Mike Trimboli got going, especially with Blakely occupying so much of Hartford’s defensive attention, and after scoring two points in the first half, Trimboli went off for 19 in the second, sealing the Hawks fate.

But the story of the game was Blakely, whose performance as of late, as he came into the match-up fresh off of a 17- point, 18-rebound performance Boston University, has been far more impressive than the sheer numbers. He has been able to dominate despite playing what he and his coaches feel is a sub-par game. This ability to dominate while playing “bad” puts Blakely in rare company, and displays not only how good he is, but just how special he is, and amazing he can be.

The America East has had its share of impact players, players who can simply take over a game and single handedly determine its outcome, players who, in retrospect, should never have played in the America East, but rather at a much higher level. T.J. Sorrentine, Jose Juan Barea, Jamar Wilson, Kenny Adeleke, and Nick Billings come to mind in recent history, but for all of their greatness, each and every member of the aforementioned group could play poorly and hurt their team. With his ability to play well below his potential and still take over a game, Blakely has joined former Catamount Taylor Coppenrath as the only player in recent history to be able to completely dominate while still playing below-par.

Blakely still has a long way to go before he can truly be compared to Coppenrath, as Coppenrath was not only the greatest player in Vermont history, but one of the greatest in America East history, a three-time player of the year award winner and a finalist for every major national award as a senior. A 6’9″ banger with range behind the perimeter, a tremendous touch around the hoop, and an even more impressive basketball IQ, Coppenrath changed every game in a way that few in the conference ever have. Blakely isn’t there yet, but he could become something even more special.

The America East hasn’t been without it’s share of high fliers, and former players Matt Turner (Boston University), and Tobe Carberry (Vermont) could certainly leap as well as Blakely, but they were both six-footers (or in Turner’s case, a 5’7″ oddity). The conference may never have seen someone as long as Blakely is (6’5″ with an even bigger wingspan) with his athleticism. Blakely isn’t merely an athlete for the America East, a big fish in a small pond, but an incredible athlete on any team in any conference, as he was easily the most explosive and athletic player on the floor when Vermont played such national powers as Florida and Virginia earlier this year.

But what makes Blakely so special, is how much his game has evolved already. After a freshman season marred by mononucleosis, when he played less than fourteen minutes a game and was little more than a dunking side-show, Blakely’s transformation has been incredible. He has developed the ability to put the ball on the floor and beat defenders off of the dribble nightly, and has developed a jump hook, spin move, and short jump shot to compliment his array of dunks, and sheer ability to out-leap opponents for buckets. To Leibovitz, what makes Blakely so scary is his ability to create his own shot and adapt to whatever the situation may be. “A lot of what he does is unscripted, he’s such a hard guy to stop,” said the Hartford mentor.

The scary thing is that Blakely has just begun to scratch the surface, as he has been playing injured all season and has not participated in a practice since the beginning of the non-conference season. Considered incredibly “raw” coming out of high school, he has established himself as the best player in the conference by a good margin, and still has only begun to scratch the surface of his potential.

“Blakely can be better, a lot better,” said Lonergan. It’s been hard, we need to keep him up because he can’t practice with us, but he has a world of potential and he’s only just starting to realize it. The biggest thing is he played thirty-seven minutes, he played thirteen a game last year. He’s gotten a lot better, and he’s gotten a lot stronger.”

Even more impressive has been how Blakely has adjusted during the season as teams continue to focus their game plan around stopping him first and foremost, as at the beginning of the year Blakely often found himself in single coverage, where he now finds himself double every trip down the court. “Early on, teams kind of hung off me and I was able to surprise a lot of them,” he reflected. “But now they really focus on me, it’s definitely gotten a lot more physical.”

For Vermont, who has reeled off two wins on the road, being able to pull out victories away from the cozy confines of Patrick Gymnasium was huge. “In this conference, winning on the road is big, real big” said Lonergan. Even more important than simply staying atop the conference in the win and loss columns, was the way Vermont went about winning: as they were able to come away with victories despite not playing “their game”, as both Boston University and Hartford were able to slow the Catamounts down and bunch them up, not allowing Blakely to get out in transition, nor allowing Vermont’s shooters to get too comfortable around the arc.

The other big thing for Vermont, was finally being healthy, as they recently got back seniors Timmy McCrory and Cieplicki. “Kyle is like another coach on the court, when he’s out there he always knows what to do,” said Blakely. “He’s a real calming influence, and we just seem to play better when he’s on the floor. Timmy, he’s big, he brings size, he is great on the boards.”

With a healthy team for the first time all season, and with the league’s best player, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Catamounts punching their ticket to the big dance come March.

     

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