What do you do when about twelve minutes before game time, your best player hobbles off the court during warm ups, unable to play? Hartford Coach John Gallagher had to figure out what to do quickly, as leading scorer, and arguably the best player on this Hartford squad, Mark Nwakamma, heard a 'pop' in his knee after going for a layup in warmups.
"I heard it's a possible meniscus tear. That's the only thing I heard... He just went up for a layup and he heard a pop. And then that was about twelve minutes on the clock. A minute later my assistant ran in and said 'he's done'."
Despite the injury, the Hawks came out playing hard. They kept the lead the entire first half, even if it was only 22-21 at halftime. If they kept playing at the pace they were at, there was a chance they could break the curse Vermont held over them. See, Hartford hasn't won a home game against Vermont in 10 years.
"I was proud of how hard we played, I was proud of how hard we fought...We need other guys to step up. We have guys in the program that can step up. It's opportunity and that's the way you have to look at it."
Yolonzo Moore II and Corban Wroe did step up to take charge. Moore ended the game with a team high 17 points while Wroe finished with a new career high of 14 points. The team trudged on, but not having Nwakamma wasn't something new to the Hawks.
"Obviously it was a shock cause we didn't know till right up to the very start, but it doesn't change anything for us. We had scrimmages where he didn't play, he was injured. We've had games where he's had four fouls and didn't play. Really it didn't change anything, we just new we had to be more aggressive as a team." said Corban Wroe.
But without Nwakamma, they played a smaller team, and when the smallest of Vermont's main players is 6-2 and the rest average around 6-8, the shots that Hartford could normally knock down were out of reach. Wes Cole, Hartford's resident three point shooter, had what looked to be an open shot blocked in the beginning of the game simply due to the size difference.
It also helps that Vermont's touted as the best defensive team in the conference.
Vermont's seniors took charge in the second half, being more aggressive on the offensive end. Brian Voelkel (10 points), Clancy Rugg (13 points), Candon Rusin (10 points) and Sandro Carissimo (11 points) all ended the game in double figures. They managed to keep Hartford at bay long enough to pull out a seven-point win.
"Our senior leaders stepped up on the offensive end in the second half, got four of them into double digits." said Vermont head coach John Becker, "Tough place to play, especially for us, road games in league, it's tough to win. Give Hartford a lot of credit. They played hard as usual. Sorry to see that Nwakamma went down in warmups, and I hope he's okay. He's a great player and a good kid. I wish the best for him, I really do."
Both Hartford and Vermont have until Saturday to prepare for their next road games. Vermont heads up to Albany to face off against the only team in America East play to have beaten Stony Brook, while Hartford travels to Long Island to have their own chance at the top team in the league.