Excitement builds for America East basketball finals

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(Host) The University of Vermont men’s basketball team takes on the Maine Black Bears at Patrick Gymnasium Saturday, with a berth in college basketball’s NCAA tournament on the line. The atmosphere around the UVM campus is electric, as VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb discovered when he attended the Catamounts’ practice this week.

(Sound of coach leading practice) “Down and back – on the whistle!” (Whistle blast.)

(Wertlieb) Saturday’s game will determine the winner of the America East Conference Championship, but more coveted than the title is the additional prize that comes with it: an invitation to the “big dance” – the NCAA tournament.

If the Catamounts win, they’ll appear on that national stage for the second year in a row, and just the second time in the school’s history, an accomplishment that’s not taken for granted by long time head coach Tom Brennan:

(Brennan) “I’ve been here for 18 years and in the beginningnobody confused me with Dean Smith, let’s put it that way. And yet the people stuck with me, they were encouraging – as people are in Vermont. This is a just a wonderful, special place. And now, to be able to give that back, to say you know what, you guys are so faithful and so loyal – now we can give this to you.”

(Wertlieb) The reference to legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith is notable because Brennan will be revered here in much the same way if the Catamounts can pull off the win. And just being in the position to do so is quite an accomplishment. UVM was dealt a major set back in February when the team’s star player, forward Taylor Coppenrath, suffered a broken bone in his left wrist.

Coppenrath appeared done for the year, but last week hopes were raised when doctors cleared him to practice. And running full drills Wednesday at Patrick Gymnasium, Coppenrath didn’t look much like an injured player, putting down slam-dunks with authority at both ends of the court.

It’s still a game-time decision whether Coppenrath will play, but the word Friday from UVM officials is that doctors are making every effort to protect the left wrist on his non-shooting hand, and it’s likely he will be in the line-up.

The team’s other marquee player – guard TJ Sorrentine – knows a thing or two, literally, about wrist injuries. He sat out all of last year after breaking both wrists in a pre-season scrimmage. And Sorrentine says all the talk about Coppenrath’s status hasn’t been a distraction for the team.

(Sorrentine) “We don’t worry about that. We let the doctors and the media worry about that. We just play. And if he’s able to play – that’s a bonus for us.”

(Wertlieb) Coach Brennan says he’s rarely had the luxury of having his Big Three of Coppenrath, Sorrentine and center Matt Sheftic on the court together for any real length of time. So in any event he’ll prepare for the worst, and hope for the best.

(Brennan) “So that’s been frustrating for us. But the flip side is how impressive these kids have been to take up the slack and just do what they had to do. Without Taylor, we have a hard time scoring. So we just grind it out. It aint pretty, we’re not pretty at all, but we’re there and were in the finals now.”

(Wertlieb) Home court advantage should be a big factor for the Catamounts. More than 100 fans camped out overnight Wednesday to scoop up any remaining tickets and Sorrentine says that kind of support can go a long way in a big game:

(Sorrentine) “It just makes you want to win that much more – for the people and for the state. Because it just shows how involved people want to be and how they want to see us do well. So, it just gives you that much more confidence to go out there and do well.”

(Wertlieb) Tip off is at 11:30 and there’s an extra treat for the home town crowd, as Vermont’s own Phish will be singing the national anthem.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Mitch Wertlieb.

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