Perhaps the most amazing thing about a streak like Vermont’s is taking perspective when it finally ends. The Catamounts had the longest current win streak in the nation (15), hadn’t lost a regular season conference game in more than two years (33 games), and had the country’s second-longest home win streak nationally (22, and would have been tops if Vermont had won, as Cincinnati lost later in the day to Wichita State).
But it was a poised, veteran, well-coached Hartford squad that came to Patrick Gym and finally wiped all those streaks off the board with a 69-68 upset in front of a sellout crowd of 3,168. While the Hawks hope the ultimate culmination will come in the America East finals in three weeks, this win will show the national crowd just how far Hartford has come since posting a 19-46 record the last two seasons (and just 8-24 in America East).
While America East is currently ranked 25th of 32 conferences in KenPom, it only took one look at the celebration from Hartford to see how important ending all those Vermont streaks was for Hartford. The Catamounts have seen everyone else’s best for the better part of two seasons and have managed to survive, even without preseason conference Player of the Year Anthony Lamb (foot injury) and Ernie Duncan (concussion).
Duncan did play 20 minutes Sunday, but missed a couple of big shots down the stretch. The late-season loss brings up the age-old undefeated riddle for Vermont: Is it better to get it out of the way and take the pressure off? Does that kind of pressure really exist? In truth, other than the lack of national press and perhaps a seed line should it make the NCAA Tournament, there shouldn’t be too much permanent damage inflicted. The Catamounts (22-6, 12-1) will most likely wrap up their second straight America East regular season title at some point this week and with it will go home-court advantage throughout the tournament.
There was a hint of relief from John Becker after the game, knowing that Vermont has not been playing its best basketball of late, and – Anthony Lamb or no Anthony Lamb (if everything goes well, he will return for the America East Tournament) – a team like Albany, Hartford, or UMBC is perfectly capable of upsetting them in the postseason and sending them to the NIT. Might this loss be able to light a fire under his team that has been lacking?
“We’ll see how they respond to a loss. It’s been a long time, certainly our winning streak in the league is remarkable and will probably be hard to duplicate ever,” Becker said. “I’m really proud of that, and our guys will be able to look back on that at some point and appreciate it. But I did try to tell them before the game that nothing they’ve done in the past matters for what’s in front of us and hopefully we respond well after this.”
If you want your streak broken, I'm available. For a small fee, of course. https://t.co/AiynURkVxv
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) February 18, 2018
What else did we learn at Patrick Gym, where the last team to win here was Stony Brook in 2015?:
- Execution, execution
John Gallagher mentioned he looked at KenPom at the beginning of the season and saw “a lot of losses” projected for his Hartford team. His fellow coaches agreed, the Hawks were picked eighth, ahead of only Maine, in the preseason America East poll.
How has Hartford overachieved? John Carroll – who was injured last season – and Hassan Attia have made a huge difference, but opening up the offense as well. Hartford was 337th (and eighth in America East) in offense last season and has been 267th or lower in six of Gallagher’s first seven seasons.
The Hawks (16-11, 9-4) are all the way up to 188th this season and second behind Vermont in conference play (1.08 ppp). Sunday, Hartford was at an unsustainable 2.4 ppp through six possessions, but it set the tone for another solid performance (1.11 ppp) in a tough spot. Jason Dunne scoring 26 points and hitting a couple of tough threes (5-10 overall) helps, but Carroll made it very tough for the Catamounts to help much. Hartford shot 58.8% (20-34) on two-point shots (with George Blagojevic going 4-4 off the bench) and turned the ball over just six times with J.R. Lynch in control at the point.
“If you look at Tom Brennan’s record here, what year did he get it going?,” Gallagher said. “What year did Steve Donahue get it going at Cornell? I think the eighth. If you give time to programs and you believe in what you’re doing, this happens. We’re looking for this year, but we have seven juniors and we have a lot of questions that can be answered the next couple of years. That’s what I was so excited this year and people laughed at me. John Carroll, if he wasn’t injured the last couple of seasons, we would not have finished where we finished.”
Final play from my angle. There was a time when you could get to the rim against Hartford at will. No more. pic.twitter.com/sp2rQB7BBC
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) February 18, 2018
2) Vermont will be OK. Probably.
The danger, of course, is that a repeat performance of a good, well-executed gameplan could take Vermont down in the America East Tournament. But that’s always a danger.
The Catamounts still have the 30th most efficient offense in the nation. Trae Bell-Haynes – despite coming up empty on the game’s final possession – is a composed veteran who makes few mistakes these days (Vermont is 52nd in turnover rate), and if they’re healthy, they can hurt you with just about anyone on the floor at any time (Bell-Haynes, at 30.9%, is statistically the worst regular from behind the arc).
So could they be beaten? Yes. Would I put my nickel on them to get back to the NCAA Tournament, even with this loss? Also yes.
“If there was going to be a team that beat us, we knew they were going to be happy as hell,” Bell-Haynes said. “Every team wants to end that streak and for them to do it here was probably even more exciting for them. But it’s pretty disrespectful honestly. It’s just one game. We’re still in first place and we’re probably going to be there in the playoffs, so hopefully for them to celebrate like that hopefully it hurts the rest of the guys like it hurts me.”
3) Road warriors
Hartford posted its SIXTH road win in conference play Sunday by beating Vermont (6-1), with its lone game away from Connecticut remaining at Binghamton, which it should win. But that also means the Hawks have three home losses (Stony Brook, Vermont, Albany – all three of which they have now beaten away from home) with New Hampshire and UMBC still to come.
The Hawks are one game behind UMBC for second, but will get at least one home game, possibly two in the America East Tournament, and while they would love another visit to Burlington on Saturday, March 10 on ESPN with an NCAA Tournament berth (they’ve never earned one) on the line, they have to avoid getting tripped up before they get there.
“We have to figure one thing out and it’s a big thing: Why are we better on the road than we are at home, and it’s something I’m going to really, really look at,” Gallagher said. “I’m going to ask our administration to stay in a hotel for the conference playoffs. I don’t know what it is, but we are hard to handle on the road.”