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Small Programs, Huge Results

13th-Seeded Vermont Stuns No. 4 Syracuse: Vermont 60, Syracuse 57

By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 19, 2005; Page D01

WORCESTER, Mass., March 18 -- Tom Brennan practically danced across the floor of DCU Center on Friday night, pumping his fists in the air, grinning from ear to ear. Never mind that there were still 66 seconds remaining in overtime in the NCAA tournament first-round game between 13th-seeded Vermont and fourth-seeded Syracuse -- the longtime Vermont coach could sense that something special was happening.

Brennan had just watched T.J. Sorrentine sink a long, long three-pointer that gave Vermont a four-point lead. And sure enough, that 28-foot dagger helped spur the Catamounts to their improbable 60-57 overtime win over the Orange.

The Catamounts celebrate their overtime victory over the Orange, extending, by at least one game, the career of their coach, Tom Brennan. (Elise Amendola -- AP)

"I just looked into the stands and people were just -- do you know how many people were exhilarated?" Brennan said. "I thought I would burst, I thought you'd find me in pieces around the arena. There's nothing in the world that can make you feel like that except competition, especially with kids that you love."

Sometimes the story is too improbable to believe, and this one had a little bit of everything. The team from the small state and the small conference knocked off one of college basketball's royalty. The beloved coach who is on the verge of retiring with a career losing record topped a Hall of Fame nominee who has over 700 career wins. The little-known seniors bettered the all-Americans.

"The magic of the tournament is a night like tonight," said Brennan, who announced his retirement after 19 seasons, effective at season's end, earlier this year.

Vermont (25-6), the first America East team to win a game in the tournament since Drexel in 1996, will meet the winner of the late Michigan State-Old Dominion game on Sunday in the second round of the Austin Region.

Syracuse (27-7) was coming off of an impressive run through the Big East tournament, and the Orange figured it had the two best players on the floor in forward Hakim Warrick and guard Gerry McNamara, both of whom played significant roles on its 2003 national title team. But McNamara shot only 4 for 18 (1 for 7 from beyond the arc) to finish with 11 points, and Warrick had an ignominious triple-double: 21 points, 12 rebounds and 10 turnovers.

"I thought both teams played tremendous defense the entire game," Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim said. "It was a real hard-fought battle. We just made too many turnovers [24] in an NCAA game to win."

Vermont's two senior stars, three-time America East player of the year Taylor Coppenrath (16 points) and Sorrentine (17 points), made crucial plays, but two of its lesser-known players also stepped up big.

Senior forward Germain Njila had 20 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists and 4 steals, and he nearly won the game in regulation with a nice baseline drive, but he stepped out of bounds. Sophomore forward Martin Klimes had seven points and played tough defense on Warrick.

"We've prided ourselves on defense all year," Sorrentine said. "We don't worry about our offense so much, that will take care of itself. Martin did a heck of a job on Warrick. He left it all on the floor today. If he doesn't play that type of defense, we don't win."

One two-and-a-half minute span midway through the second half encapsulated some of Syracuse's struggles. First, Sorrentine made a three-pointer from the right side in the face of McNamara, who had yet to hit an equivalent shot. Sorrentine's third three-pointer of the game gave Vermont its largest lead to that point, 35-29, with 10 minutes 54 seconds left in the game.

Syracuse then came up empty at the other end of the court, despite one shot from McNamara, a tap from Terrence Roberts and two follow-ups from Warrick. A minute later, Roberts brought the Orange to within 36-33 on a big dunk, but was called for a technical foul for hanging on the rim. Sorrentine made both free throws to put the Catamounts back up by five with 8:58 to go.

The teams were tied at 51 with less than a minute to play, but Warrick elbowed Klimes in the face and was whistled for an offensive foul. That gave the Catamounts the ball with 33 seconds and a chance to win the game. Njila drove the baseline and converted a layup -- which drew huge cheers from the crowd of 13,009 -- but he stepped out of bounds and the basket was waved off with 3.7 seconds on the clock. McNamara's desperation three-pointer at the buzzer bounced away, which set up the extra period.

MICHIGAN STATE 89, OLD DOMINION 81: Fifth-seeded Michigan State avoided Syracuse's fate by rallying from a five-point halftime deficit. The Spartans (23-6) entered the game having lost five of the six games in which they trailed at the half.

Michigan State led by one, 76-75, with 3:30 left in the game. The Spartans made all seven free throws they attempted down the stretch, and that helped put away the Monarchs (28-6).

"It feels good" to win a close game, said senior Alan Anderson, who led Michigan State with 15 points. "It lets us know we can end close games, we can knock down big free throws, we can come together and get stops when we need them."

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