BURLINGTON — Vermont and UMBC will face off in the America East men’s basketball championship for the second straight year when they tangle at 11 a.m. Saturday at Patrick Gym.
It will be the first time in 18 seasons that the league title game features the same teams and same venue as the previous year. The Catamounts (26-6) will play in their fourth straight conference championship and they’ll have be hungry for payback after losing to UMBC in last year’s final. An automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament will be up for grabs in a game that will be broadcast on ESPN2.
UMBC (21-12) earned a regular-season sweep over Vermont and has defeated the Cats during their last three meetings. The Retrievers earned a 74-61 over a short-handed UVM side on Jan. 23 during a game when America East Player of the Year Anthony Lamb was sidelined in order to take part in concussion protocol. The teams met again Feb. 21, with UMBC prevailing 65-56 on its home court.
After securing the No. 3 seed for the conference tourney, UMBC kicked things off with a 62-54 quarterfinal victory over No. 6 Albany. The defending league champs survived a challenge from No. 4 Hartford during Tuesday’s 90-85 double-overtime during semifinal action in Baltimore. UMBC led 50-24 with 15:09 remaining before the Hawks stormed back.
Brandon Horvath’s free throws with 51 seconds left put UMBC in front for good during the second overtime. K.J. Jackson led UMBC with 21 points and eight rebounds. Joe Sherburne added 12 points and 12 boards for the Retrievers, who advanced to the championship for the fourth time in program history. It was the league’s first double-overtime playoff game since Vermont beat Hartford in the 2012 semifinals.
Vermont earned the top seed for the tournament and defeated No. 8 Maine, 73-57, in the quarterfinals. The Cats ended No. 7 Binghamton’s run with Tuesday’s 84-51 semifinal win in Burlington. The Bearcats closed the gap to 22-17 with 9:27 left in the first half, but UVM used a 26-2 first-half spurt to build an insurmountable lead against.
Vermont’s Stef Smith scored 23 of his career-high 28 points in the first half to set the tone during the semifinal. His eight 3-pointers set a new America East semifinal record and are tied for the second most in a league tournament game. Lamb added 18 points and seven assists.
“It was a great game by all of our guys, and offensively it was obviously as good as it’s been for awhile,” Vermont coach John Becker said. “I thought defensively we were just as a good as well. The guys took ownership tonight. They knew exactly what they wanted to do and went out and did it.”
Vermont shot 58 percent from the field against Binghamton and set a record for America East semifinal action by making 14 3-pointers. The Catamounts are the sixth America East team to lock up four straight trips to the championship game. UVM also accomplished the feat in 2006 and will be making its 10th appearance in the title game.
Vermont is 14-3 against the Retrievers at Patrick Gym and leads the all-time series 32-6. Last winter, UMBC’s Jairus Lyles made a buzzer-beating 3-pointer and propelled the Retrievers to a 65-62 win over Vermont in the America East title game. It snapped UVM’s 23-game winning streak against UMBC. The following week the Retrievers later became the first No. 16 seed in NCAA Tournament history to beat the top seed by eliminating Virginia.