The first half of basketball had to be one of the worst displays Vermont head coach John Becker has seen all season, if not in his four year tenure with the Catamounts.
Vermont did not make a three, made four field goals on 18 shots (22%), and had just one more point from the field (8) than from the free throw line (7) in the game’s first 20 minutes. It seemed like for the first time, a team that plays plenty of freshmen had hit a wall.
“I think we just got knocked off our spot a little bit,” Becker said.
Vermont could have easily folded the rest of the night, but the fourth year head coach of the Catamounts said he challenged Dre Wills to be the spark plug that would light their second half comeback. The sophomore had played only six minutes of the first 20, picking up two quick fouls and a seat on the bench.
“Dre Wills is a guy that’s got to be our tough guy, that’s got to be our leader,” Becker said. “I challenged all of them, and especially Dre, at halftime. We can’t afford for him to be like that and he came out. I thought his bravado and defense on Puriefoy was huge.”
The second half began for Vermont’s defense with a Roland Nyama shot in the lane stuffed by Kurt Steidl. The defense would continue for the Catamounts, as the 6’1″ sophomore Wills stole a pass intended for Warney and – on the next possession – drew a charge on the 6’8″ junior. Hector Harold turned defense into offense when he poked the ball out of Puriefoy’s hands for a steal and then converted for a transition dunk to cut the lead to 29-19.
Stony Brook would extend the lead as large as 17 when Puriefoy found Tyrell Sturdivant for a layup to go up 38-21, but from there the Catamounts made their charge. They found their rhythm by driving the lane and finding open cutters to the basket along the baselines. Brandon Hatton drove to the middle of the lane and found a cutting Wills driving along the left baseline for a two-hand dunk that cut the lead to 40-29.
“I think that really got us going,” Hatton said. “And got us some energy to pull it through.”
The next possession, with the shot clock winding down, the ball wound up in freshman Cam Ward’s hands from long range. After a slight hesitation off the catch, his long three-pointer rattled home, the Catamounts first three, with just over 10 minutes left cut the lead to under double digits.
“We found something offensively that works and we kind of went with it,” Becker said. “We’re getting some hand off action in the ball screen and then just kind of playing out of it. We found something there and with this team so young, and not having a superstar, we just find a different guy that can play.”
From there the Catamounts turned to junior Ethan O’Day, who scored four straight to cut the lead to four. Then Hatton began to score, driving off the right baseline and converting a three-point play, followed by a three-pointer of his own to cut the score to 42-41, but it was O’Day’s drive on Warney and conversion with the right hand that gave Vermont their first lead with 5:44 left.
“I was struggling offensively early even in the first half, I wasn’t getting the ball where I wanted it,” O’Day said. “Then teammates started to get the ball in good places in the second half, spaced the floor around me and worked off me well.”
“[It] just seemed like the floor opened up for me. Once I got a few shots to go, I just got more confident and just kept going right at him.”
After a turnover on their next possession, O’Day then continued his dominance, driving the middle of the lane with ease to create enough space to put his hooks over the 6’8″ Warney to put the Catamounts up three with 2:34 remaining.
“When Ethan O’Day stays on the floor, he’s the best big in the league,” Becker said of O’Day’s game-high 17 points. “That’s as good as I’ve seen him. He had inside, outside, right, left, any way you want it. It’s great to see and its great when he’s confident, because he is a talented kid and I wouldn’t trade him for anyone.”
Even when Puriefoy answered on the other end with a layup to O’Day’s hooks over Warney, the 6’9″ junior set a high ball screen at the top of the key for Ward, who then delivered the ball over to his screening counterpart. The junior took the 19 foot jump shot without hesitation and put the Catamounts back up three, but it was Hatton the freshman who’s right corner three sealed the game with 57.2 seconds left.
“Coach told me to stay confident, and I was going to have a big game, and that’s what happened,” Hatton said of his season-high 12 points. “My name got called in this game and I knocked the shot down, so I was pretty excited.”
“When I knew we won it was when Hatton hit that three in the corner to put us up six,” O’Day said. “The young guys stepped up and found me in great places. It was a great game.”
All in all, the Catamounts mounted a run that was as long as 23-4 over the second half to close a 17 point deficit into a lead that they would never relinquish.
“It’s amazing however many games into the season, we’ve never – besides the Quinnipiac game – we’ve never been out of games,” Becker said. “Had a couple of bad first halves against Saint Louis, Santa Barbara, USC, even Siena we were down big and we come back and win.”
“We always have been hanging around and now we’re starting to figure out how to win those games, so its exciting.”
In total, Wills grabbed three steals of Stony Brook’s eight turnovers in the half. The team shot 72% from the field and managed to pull off, not only a victory and confidence booster, but some distance in seeding for the America East playoffs.
Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2014-15 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference and Hofstra for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.