Wagner 68, Vermont 61

Wagner was hanging on for dear life against Vermont with 25 seconds remaining when Kenneth Ortiz helped his teammates breathe a little bit easier thanks to an outstanding defensive play.

The Seahawks were up by three points when Ortiz’s hounding defense forced Brian Voelkel to lean out just a bit on the screen. The officials caught it and the offensive foul sealed the 68-61 victory for Wagner.

“That’s my pride. That’s my bread and butter right there,” Ortiz said about his defense. “No matter what that’s what I take pride in. That’s what wins games.”

“I can’t coach him to do that,” said Wagner head coach Bashir Mason about Ortiz’s key play. “He just has a knack for coming up with those.”

Ortiz has always been an excellent defensively player because of his elite athleticism. This season he’s harnessed it on the offensive end as well. Ortiz consistently attacked the rim against Vermont and finished with 15 points on 5-8 shooting.

“I get to the rim all the time,” Ortiz said. “That’s just my game. It’s kind of hard for guys to keep me out of the lane and I just take advantage of it. You’ve got to play to your strengths.”

The reason Ortiz can attack the rim now is an improved jump shot. His shooting has become consistent enough that opponents will have to respect Ortiz outside of the paint as well. On Thursday he hit his lone three-point attempt.

While Ortiz led the Seahawks in scoring, it’s not that part of the game that his head coach thinks has improved the most. Mason is impressed not by Ortiz’s ability to attack the rim, but by his confidence to find teammates in the right situation. The three assists Ortiz dished out also led the team.

“He’s not thinking score,” Mason said. “He’s thinking to facilitate because he knows at the end of the day he’s going to get his 12 to 15 points over the course of 30 minutes and that’s opening things up for everybody else.”

It of course helps to have such a dynamic cast of playmakers around Ortiz. Six Wagner players scored at least eight points against the Catamounts. The Seahawks shot 5-10 from three and 19-25 from the free throw line. Wagner also enjoyed a 14-0 advantage in fast break points.

But Wagner did struggle with Vermont’s physical front court. Clancy Rugg was saddled with foul trouble he entire game, but the senior forward still managed to score 18 points and grab nine rebounds in 23 minutes. He forced Mason to go deep into his front court bench as well. Foul trouble for Mario Moody and Naofall Folahan forced Hugo Naurais and Nolan Long to each play seven minutes off the bench.

“He was really cooking in the first half and was great in the second half,” said Vermont head coach John Becker about Rugg. “It’s frustrating. It’s frustrating to watch a kid like that be taken out of the game.”

While the Catamounts matched Wagner point for point in the paint, the guards struggled to score against Ortiz and the rest of Wagner’s athletic backcourt. Vermont shot 0-12 from three and committed 13 turnovers, six by Voelkel. A 5:40 stretch without a field goal in the first half helped Wagner push the lead to as many as 14 points before the Catamounts came back in the second behind Rugg. Vermont even managed to take a one-point lead with 5:21 remaining.

To their credit, the Seahawks didn’t fold. Orlando Parker made big plays down the stretch in place of Folahan, who fouled out with 3:14 remaining. Perhaps the biggest was an offensive rebound on which Rugg was called for his fifth foul with 2:57 remaining.

Vermont, the preseason America East favorite, dropped to 1-4 with the loss. Becker expected to have forwards Ethan O’Day and Ryan Pierson when he made an extremely challenging schedule. Both are currently rehabbing injuries.

“We have four rotation guys out and we’ve played a monster schedule and it only gets tougher,” Becker said. “I scheduled tough with the thought that we’d have all of our guys and still it was going to be difficult.”

The Catamounts came close against Wagner, but a key defensive play by Ortiz made sure the Seahawks walked away winners.

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