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Vermont finds value in close loss to Kentucky

This team will once again be picked to pull off big upsets come NCAA tournament time.

NCAA Basketball: Vermont at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

LEXINGTON — In his postgame press conference following Kentucky’s 73-63 win over Utah Valley, John Calipari said (albeit sarcastically) that he heard the Vermont Catamounts were “doing back flips in their rooms watching this game.”

Given how John Becker’s squad looked down the stretch on Sunday, perhaps that statement wasn’t wrong.

From the early minutes, it looked as if Kentucky had learned its lesson from Friday night. The Wildcats were hitting shots, and their length was giving Vermont fits inside. Hamidou Diallo continued to take over as Vermont found itself in a 12-point hole at halftime.

This veteran Catamounts team knows how to recover. Calipari even pointed that out in his postgame press conference Sunday evening, reminding folks of Vermont’s propensity for recovering and finishing strong.

“I watched the Albany game in their tournament,” he said. “Wow.”

Just like in the Albany game, Vermont rallied. Thanks largely to three-point shooting near the end, the Catamounts found themselves with two chances to tie the game near the end of regulation. Neither fell. Despite the misses, Becker was able to draw positives.

“I thought we got good looks at the end,” he said. “I was happy with our end-of-game situation execution."

Ultimately, Vermont fell 73-69.

However, despite the close loss, Vermont has added to the buzz around its program that first began with last year’s 29-win season. The common fan should now know what this program is and what it is capable of. They should know these Catamounts, especially Trae Bell-Haynes, the guard with amazing finishing abilities whom Becker called “special” at the dais tonight.

Above all else though, this matchup with Kentucky was the ultimate preparation for Vermont, a team with its sights set firmly on surpassing its remarkable 2016-17 season.

After all, this might be a Vermont team that is laden with veteran stars, but they must still continue to work to ensure their continual rise.

“There’s a feeling of frustration that we’re not quite there yet,” Becker said. “But we’re excited to get back to work."

Their work will certainly be cut out for them from here to the end of the season.

With a non-conference schedule featuring a veritable who’s-who of the mid-major world — Bucknell, St. Bonaventure, Yale, and Richmond — Vermont will be busy trying to build a résumé that impresses while also prepares.

And that’s just how Becker likes it, saying as much following his team’s valiant performance in Rupp Arena.

“We’re looking to play anyone, anywhere, anytime,” he said. “We like to challenge ourselves that way. We need to make sure that we understand exactly who we are by the time league play comes around.

Therein lies the theme for Vermont this season: fearlessness. The Catamounts might be from the America East, but they will fight harder than just about any team in the country. And, in many instances, they will emerge victorious.

Tonight wasn’t one of those nights, but it certainly prepared them for what’s to come.