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Albany Gets Much-Needed Win

February 14, 2008 Columns No Comments



Great Danes Get Big Win When They Need it Most, Show Growth

by Sam Perkins

BURLINGTON, Vt. – Marqus Blakely had another monster game on the stat sheet, scoring 18 points while pulling down 16 rebounds, but the Albany great Danes learned how to take him out of the equation, as much as possible. They executed a game plan that kept Blakely off balance for forty minutes and exposed some of the few weaknesses in his game. The Great Danes learned how to take advantage of the chinks in Vermont’s armor. Tim Ambrose has seemingly learned how to play within Albany’s system and contribute at the Division I level. Brent Wilson learned when to simply get out of the way.

And the league as a whole learned that when Vermont and Albany meet, no matter which side is surging, which side is struggling, and what the standings are going into the game, it is going to be a war for forty minutes. This time, the end result was a 64-61 win for the Great Danes.

Entering the game, the two teams appeared headed on different trajectories. Vermont had built up a strong head of steam, having won six of its last seven games, and seemed to have all the momentum heading into the game. Albany, on the other hand, was scuttling, fresh off a very disheartening loss at home to Hartford in which the team had fallen apart in the second half. The Great Danes had certainly played their share of good games this season, having already beaten Vermont in overtime earlier in the season, but they had struggled greatly to bring consistent intensity to the floor.

“You are looking at the Jekyll and Hyde team of the America East. When we play with that passion, we’re as good as any team in the league, and when we don’t play with that passion, we’re average at best,” commented Albany Head Coach Will Brown. Monday night, they brought it.

The best analogy for the game could be found in Vermont assistant coach Gabe Rodriguez’ in game attire: Olive-brown suit, pink shirt, and powder-blue tie. In a word, a jumble, equal parts ugly, sleek, and baffling. Both teams held each other scoreless until an Al Turley layup put Albany on top at the 16:46 mark. Thirteen seconds later Brian Lillis, the reigning defensive player of the year did a beautiful job of anticipating a Mike Trimboli pass, picking it off and going coast to coast for a one-handed jam. But after that brief scoring spurt for Albany, the teams went back to a defensive stalemate, and stood tied at ten points with over eleven minutes elapsed in the first half.

Both teams’ offenses sputtered in neutral for most of the first half, not because of incompetence, but rather amazing defensive efforts on both sides. The game featured three of the league’s top players, and three of the top five scorers in the league in Blakely (1st 18.9ppg), Mike Trimboli (2nd 18.6) and Lillis (5th 16.2).. Furthermore, Blakely and Lillis have emerged as two of the three players fighting it out for player of the year honors (with Boston University’s Cory Lowe being the third). Needless to say, the game featured plenty of firepower, yet the teams weren’t able to put the ball in the hoop often, as they entered the half tied at 22. Although the scoring picked up on the second half a bit, the defensive trends remained the same throughout.

Vermont frustrated Lillis into 2-7 shooting in the first half, and 4-14 on the game, by focusing their defensive efforts entirely on Albany’s senior star. Lillis rarely got an open look, and when he did, Timmy McCrory was often there to close it off, annihilating three shots in the first half, five on the night, and altering several more.

But it was Albany’s defense on Vermont’s two stars that was the story of the first half, and the game.

“I said right before the game, that Blakely and Trimboli will probably walk out with there averages, but we have to have low shooting percentages (from them), they have to work for everything that they get,” said Albany coach Will Brown.

The Danes seem to have written the book on how to stop Trimboli, Vermont’s fiery guard, from every getting into a flow and finding a comfort zone. During last season’s conference championship game, Brown drew up a game plan that called for Albany to cover Trimboli with a bigger, physical, defender at all times, which gave Trimboli headaches. Brown once again called upon this plan, as Brian Lillis, Jerel Hastings, and Tim Ambrose gave Trimboli and senior guard Kyle Cieplicki fits, as the two went a combined 1-9 from the floor in the first half and 6-23 on the night. Albany’s guards, bigger and stronger than Vermont’s, played very physical defense, and the Catamounts’ guards couldn’t create separation.

“Coach did a great job of getting us ready for this game” reflected Lillis, who added, “the young guys are finally getting it, and the older guys are getting it too, finally.”

By containing Vermont’s shooters, Albany was able to magnify some of the few flaws in Blakely’s game in the post. Blakely has established himself as the most talented player in the conference, a player who Will Brown feels “is the best athlete that we (Albany) may have played all year, he is right up there with Gerald Henderson from Duke.” Most teams in the conference have tried to fight fire with fire, so to speak, by putting their most athletic forward on Blakely in man situations, and as no one in the conference is even on the same planet as Blakely athletically, this defensive strategy has rarely worked, as Blakely simply out-quicks and out-leaps athletic players.

Albany came at him with a different approach, by putting their biggest and strongest players on the court on Blakely at all times, and by keeping their big men in between Blakely in the basket. For Albany it wasn’t simply about double-teaming Blakely, which he has seen for most of the season, but rather about keeping him off balance, fronting him at times and collapsing down, but above all else playing as physical as possible, as size is one of Blakely’s few weaknesses.

“Unfortunately for him, he’s only six-five,” stated Brown. “I think what happens is, a lot of teams put their power forwards on him. We wanted to put the biggest guys we had on him, and we wanted to keep him off balance. We wanted to keep him off balance, and we wanted a bigger guy on him. Our three big guys did a good job of not letting him get the ball. And when he did get the ball, we crowded him, and then we picked and chose our spots of when to double him.”

Albany would sag off of Blakely whenever he got away from the paint, and collapse down on him once he made his move into the post. Blakely’s lack of a refined post game was finally exploited, as he struggled greatly to maneuver around the volume of bodies clogging the lane, and also missed several shots in close to the hoop, going 2-6 from the floor in the first half, and 5-15 on the game. Albany couldn’t stop Blakely, as no team in the conference can, and he was a monster on the boards, but they contained and frustrated him into a game they could handle. “They got into my head,” reflected Blakely.

If Vermont’s perimeter shooters had found a groove, it would have opened up the floor and Blakely likely would have dominated once again, but Albany’s guards never allowed that to happen.

“We shot three for fourteen from three, when that happens were not going to win many games,” remarked Vermont head coach Mike Lonergan.

Had Blakely been able to draw Albany’s big men away from the basket, he could have broken them down and beat them back to the hoop with his tremendous quickness and athleticism, but right now he simply doesn’t have the skills to demand attention away from the hoop. With Blakely’s skills, it is certainly reasonable to believe he will develop a 10-15 foot jumper in time, but right now he simply doesn’t have one. Albany also did a good job of keeping Vermont from getting out in transition, a scenario that usually ends with Blakely throwing down some form of a monster alley-oop that invigorates the crowd and breaks an opponent’s back.

There was one rare occasion when Vermont did get out on a break, as Blakely went coast to coast for a soaring slam after a steal. There was almost a case of deja vu, as a similar sequence unfolded during last season’s championship game that ended with Brent Wilson being plastered all over Sports Center and Youtube after Blakely posterized him with a dunk. Wilson once again had a chance to make a play on Blakely’s dunk, however this time he chose to simply let Blakely have his two points, and sidestepped him.

But Albany refused to let Vermont swing the momentum, as the Danes ratcheted up the energy as the game went on. Lillis had the highlight of the game, a SportsCenter-worthy dunk that reclaimed the momentum for the Danes, as Lillis, off a baseline drive, took off from the right side of the basket, floated underneath the hoop, and slammed it on the left.

“How about Lillis’ dunk? That was pretty good, huh,” joked Brown.

However, the story of the game for Albany wasn’t Lillis carrying the team as it has been for much of the year, but rather the Great Danes playing as a team around Lillis and complementing their star. “When we get some other guys helping Brian out scoring, we’re very good,” said Brown.

The Catamounts compounded matters by slipping up late in the game defensively, and Jon Iati and Brent Wilson each nailed two huge threes to give Albany the momentum boost that they needed.

“We were at home, up three with three minutes left, unfortunately we had a few huge breakdowns,” reflected Lonergan. “Leaving Brent Wilson, trying to take a charge in the back court and Iati hits a wide open three, and Ambrose takes one of our best defenders right to the rim.”

And as time wound down, it was Vermont who blinked, as Trimboli forced two bad shots late in the game, one on an up and under with his left hand, and the second on a runner with about thirty seconds left.

The other story of the game was the inspired play of Albany freshman Tim Ambrose. Ambrose, a tremendous physical specimen and high-flier, who was easily the most highly touted freshman in the conference coming into the season, has experienced an up-and-down season. He’s shown flashes of brilliance with a 24-point explosion versus Duke, but also large stretches in which he barely played, often due to a lack of a grasp of the college game and a lack of effort and ability on defense.

But against Vermont, Ambrose was a man possessed, taking the ball right at the Catamount guards and to the rim at will. Ambrose also displayed the ability to adapt on the court within the flow of the game, as after McCrory erased two of his shots with big time rejections, Ambrose took a different approach, going around McCrory for two acrobatic lay-ups later on.

“Unfortunately, when Tim dropped 24 at Duke, people put a lot of pressure on he kid, and you saw once again tonight why he’s as talented as he is” said Brown. “The thing with Tim too is, and I don’t play him enough, if I played him like the other freshmen in the league, he would be the leading scorer (among freshmen) in the league, by far. It’s just that I want him to become a student of the game like I’ve talked about, and fundamentally sound.” That’s something Ambrose took a huge step towards versus Vermont.

If the Danes are truly headed on the upswing, it couldn’t have happened at a better time, as Albany has unmatched postseason experience in the conference, and could be hitting their stride at the perfect time. According to Brown, “A lot of teams have peaked already, and a lot of teams are not going to take that next step, and I think that we are one of those teams that still have a lot of room to improve, and I think that we can continue to get better.”

For Albany, the question remains, what team is going to show up every night? And how does everyone not named Lillis match-up against the rest of the league? Ambrose was able to run ragged against Vermont, largely because the Catamounts have the least-athletic guards in the conference. He won’t be able to play that way against the likes of Joe Zeglinski (Hartford), Ray Barbosa (UMBC), Corey Lowe (BU), Kiamondre Owes (Maine) or New Hampshire or Binghamton’s backcourts.

     

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