As the the 2010 NCAA Tournament begins today, it’s a chance for a new star or team that most people around the nation have never heard of to forever etch their name into the lore what has become known as March Madness and have their chance to create their “one shining moment.” For some, it’s also a chance to reflect on the mark they left on the celebrated sporting event. Looking back, all anyone involved with the 2005 Bucknell Bison and Vermont Catamounts could do is smile.
“It is really difficult to point to one part of the whole experience of that game and say that was my favorite part, said Kevin Bettoncourt,” the former guard of Bucknell who is currently an assistant coach to the men’s basketball team at Bentley University in suburban Boston.
“But the moments after that game on the court and in the locker room where you can look at your teammates and coaches and know you just pulled off something that people will be talking about for a long time was pretty special”
Five years ago today, the first round of the 2005 NCAA Tournament was drawing to a close but there were still two time blocks of games remaining. The NCAA tournament had seen few upsets to that point, with only 12 seed Milwaukee (over Alabama), 11 seed UAB (over LSU) and 10 seed NC State (over Charlotte) winning first round games.
Not only did two of those happen early in the action but they were popular upset picks going into the tournament, with the latter not even being considered an upset by some.
It was lacking a notable upset that would make fans remember it for years to come. That is until the Friday night session. It started with 13 seed Vermont taking on a fourth seeded Syracuse team that still had players who had contributed to the team’s 2003 national championship. Although led by nationally known players Taylor Coppenrath and TJ Sorrentine as well as outspoken coach Tom Brennan, most prognosticators felt the Catamounts didn’t have enough talent to hang with the Orangemen, let alone enough to turn it into a classic tournament moment.
“Everywhere I go people still ask me about the game,” Sorrentine, who played guard on the team, said. “Being in [the coaching profession] and interacting with kids and coaches it comes up all the time”
Sorrentine is now an assistant coach at Brown University in Providence. He said the team felt great going into the match-up and that no team intimidated them.
“We felt we could play with any team in the country,” he said. “We had played UNC and Kansas during the season so we felt pretty confident going into the NCAA tourney that no matter who we played we were going to have a chance to win.”
That the game took place in Worchester, Massachusetts, in the heart of New England, meant Vermont had a large contingent of fans to cheer on their biggest win in school history.
“By the end we were like Nebraska football, people followed us everywhere,” said Tom Brennan, the former coach at Vermont who now has a radio show broadcast in the state. “We must have had 3,000 people from Vermont at the game. But more importantly…there were 15,000 people there and when the game got into crunch time and overtime about 10,000 of them were cheering for Vermont so it was really neat,” he said.
Nothing drew more cheers than Sorrentine’s heroic, if not daring, 35 foot shot with about a minute remaining in the overtime and 8 seconds left on the shot clock. The shot increased the Catamounts lead to the score of 59-55 and was the signature moment of the game.
“Once I let it go i felt like it was good but I didn’t know for sure until it went in,” Sorrentine said. “Of course, every shot I shot I thought was going in,” he laughed.
“We ran a set called “red” to try and set a screen for a shot by T.J. or Taylor Coppenrath to try and take shot,” said Brennan. “I said to him ‘run red’ but [TJ] put his hands up and said ‘I got it, I got it.’ And then he turned and fired since [the Syracuse defender] had relaxed off him because they were playing zone. TJ just buried it and at that point I knew in my heart we were going to win.”
To the tune of CBS announcer Gus Johnson’s typical exclamations they did, pulling off the tournament’s first major shocker, 60-57 in overtime.
Meanwhile in Oklahoma City, national powerhouse and third seeded Kansas began their match-up with Bucknell, a game many considered a formality for a number of reasons. This included the fact that the Jayhawks, which lost lost to the 2003 Syracuse team in the national championship game, still had components of the team that made that run and hadn’t lost a first round NCAA tournament game since 1978. That was when only 48 teams made the tournament and before teams were handed seeds to play in the tournament.
For the Bison, led by center Chris McNaughton, guard Kevin Bettencourt and coached by eleventh year head coach Pat Flannery, It was a chance in front of national audience to show that their 69-66 win at Pittsburgh earlier that year (to this day, the Panthers only non-conference loss at the Petersen’s Event Center) was in no way a fluke.
“The feeling going into the Kansas game was more of excitement than anything else,” Bettencourt said. “I think the win at Pitt earlier in the season was extremely important. We had a lot of close games that year that was decided in the last minutes and winning most of those types of games really gives you a tremendous amount of poise and confidence in each other in big moments.”
And just as the Panthers could not put Bucknell away in their January 2005 game, the same was true for Kansas. The two teams took turns taking the lead but could not pull away. The largest second half lead was a mere five points for each team.
The Bison led 62-57 with 1:11 left to play. The Jayhawks scored a quick two pointer and got a steal, which led to an intentional foul. Cutting to deficit to one after two free throws, the Jayhawks took the lead 63-62 on two more free throws by Keith Langford with 25.4 seconds remaining.
Undeterred, Bucknell set up a play for McNaughton, who worked in the low post and hit a hook shot over All-American Wayne Simien with 10.5 seconds left. The Jayhawks failed to convert when they regained possession and after the Bison missed the front end of the one and one, it set up a dramatic conclusion.
“I think we made too much out of not fouling and they got a long pass off,” explained Flannery, now a booster at Bucknell. “He caught it and turned I thought we were okay until I saw some separation and asked for anyone’s hand to be in Simien’s vision.”
Similar to Christian Lattner’s iconic shot in 1992 Elite Eight, the Jayhawks threw a full court pass to Simien, who caught ball just inside the three point line and turned to shoot. His 18 footer drew the front iron as time expired and the Bison escaped with a 64-63 win.
“It felt the luck of the Irish,” Flannery said. “On the last shot he was a moving target, it fell short and I was glad to beat Kansas,” he said.
The game earned the team the honor of receiving an ESPY for best upset. The fact that it was considered a major fluke in some circles doesn’t bother Bettencourt.
“Looking back at it and really comprehending how far our program came in those years to beat a team the stature of Kansas was a tremendous accomplishment which got a lot of people excited and everyone involved is proud of that,” he said.
“I do think the success we had the next year– winning another NCAA tournament game and cracking the Top 25–did validate that upset to a certain degree but I am still happy to be known by some for being a part of the team that beat Kansas.”
People from both programs still keep in touch with those who they teamed up with to create those special moments.
“I keep up with them through Facebook, phone calls, e-mails. They are all finding their own journeys and doing well. Playing, working, coaching, etc… they’re very diverse group,” Flannery said
Vermont’s Coppenrath, who now plays overseas with the Spanish Liga LEB team called CB Lucentum Alicante, keeps in touch via social networking sites and also runs into his former teammates when he comes back to the US during the Summer time. Looking back on his career, Coppenrath felt a certain sense of accomplishment and pride for how much he helped put Vermont, which had never made the NCAA tournament before he stepped on campus, on the basketball map.
“I really liked that we had accomplished something new every year we were there,” he said. “It was a fitting way to go out for the seniors and coaches.
“I also like that during the NCAA tournament anything can happen and you do have upsets and was glad that we were one of them.”
And as the nation gears up for another dose of March Madness today, they can be comforted by Coppenrath’s words, that indeed anything can happen and upsets do happen. One such can be in the Vermont-Syracuse rematch, where people the nation are waiting to find out if the 2010 Catamounts can follow in the footsteps of the 2005 version by beating Syracuse and find out if they can become the first 16 seed to beat a 1 seed.
“If the stars are aligned and they shock the world, it would be the greatest upset in NCAA tournament history,” Brennan said.
Finding out if they can is what makes the NCAA Tournament so special.