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Throwback Week: The Vermont Catamounts teams that made Tom Brennan a New England coaching legend

4 straight 20-win seasons. 3 straight NCAA Tournaments. One shot from the parking lot.

UVM Athletics

The Vermont Catamounts will name their home court at Patrick Gym after longtime head coach Tom Brennan on Monday before their game against Siena.

That provides us with the perfect excuse to take a look back at those memorable Vermont teams that ruled the America East and gave us one of the great moments in NCAA Tournament history.

Before their run

Brennan was named head coach at Vermont in 1986 as the Catamounts were struggling for relevance in the New England basketball landscape. After years of mediocrity in the Yankee Conference, Vermont found itself in what became the America East, piling up single-digit-win seasons and finishing above .500 just once in the 10 seasons before Brennan was hired.

Brennan’s first few years at the helm weren’t much better. He went just 14-68 over his first three seasons, never finishing better than seventh in the conference. Vermont improved in the 90s, but not by much — the Catamounts had six winning seasons from 1989-90 to 1999-00, but never qualified for the postseason.

And while the 2000-01 season brought more of the same — a 12-17 record and seventh-place finish in the America East — the freshman class had some promise. A freshman named T.J. Sorrentine was second on the team in scoring with 14.8 points per game. The Catamounts also redshirted a local freshman named Taylor Coppenwrath, a Vermont native who would quickly become a double-double threat as a sophomore.

Vermont went to the semifinals of the America East Tournament in 2002, where an overtime loss to Maine cut a 21-8 season short.

The first championship

UVM Athletics

Vermont was the clear favorite in the America East entering the 2002-03 season, but those championship aspirations were almost over before they started. Sorrentine broke both of his wrists before the season started and was forced to redshirt the year.

That left it up to Coppenrath to shoulder the load, and he did just that. The 2003 America East Player of the Year posted 20.1 points and 6.2 rebounds per game, while shooting 39 percent from three. Matt Sheftic and Grant Anderson were the other big men, and that trio led the team in scoring and rebounding virtually every game.

After staring 3-0, a six-game losing streak in late November didn’t do much to derail the team. Included in those six games were close losses to teams like Utah State and Providence.

The 5-1 start to conference play wasn’t surprising, and the 38-point performance from Coppenrath against New Hampshire in late January was even less so.

But the 11-5 conference record would have been forgotten if it had not been for one shot with 5.6 seconds to go in the America East championship game at Boston University. That shot came from David Hehn from about 10-feet out, giving Vermont a 56-55 win and giving Brennan his first taste of the NCAA Tournament.

Note: If anyone has video of that shot, let me know and I’ll add it in.

The 16-seeded Catamounts were sent west for a first-round pummeling at the hands of Arizona, but the stage had been set. The Catamounts were now contenders.

The second championship

If expectations were high in 03, they were through the roof the next season with Coppenrath and Sorrentine both healthy. An 0-4 start did little to change that either, with Vermont going on to win 16 of its next 17 games. The Catamounts stumbled a bit in mid-February, but entered the conference tournament as the 2 seed with a 15-3 league record.

Coppenrath again averaged north of 20 points per game and Sorrentine averaged 14.8 to go with his team-high 4.6 assists per game. This time, the America East title game had none of the fireworks of 2003 as the Catamounts cruised to a 19-point win over Maine. Their reward? A 15 seed and a date with Big East champion and former Yankee Conference rival UConn.

While the Huskies won 70-53 en route to their second national championship, the Catamounts got their first shining moment of their March Madness history by scoring the first seven points in that game.

For most low-major teams, back-to-back conference tournament titles would be enough. Coppenrath and Sorrentine were already heroes, and Brennan had gone from losing coach to the proud owner of two perfectly cut America East championship nets.

But it all paled in comparison to what happened the next year.

From the parking lot

This is the team that people outside of Vermont remember. Even if they don’t remember the 15-game win streak, the near-upset over Kansas on opening night at the Phog, or their dominant run through the conference tournament, they remember the team.

They remember Coppenrath posting over 25 per game. They remember Sorrentine’s 18. They remember trying to pronounce Germain Mopa Nijila.

More than all of that, they remember the shot from the parking lot.

As a 13 seed, Vermont led by one in the final 90 seconds of overtime against 4 seed Syracuse. Vermont had the ball and the Catamounts needed a dagger to send through the hearts of Orange fans everywhere. Sorrentine dribbled casually between the circles, killing some clock.

Vermont fans got loud, their screams of “UVM! UVM!” coming through the TV broadcast as clear as Len Elmore’s voice.

The shot clock hit 10. Then nine. Elmore started to say something about fundamentals as Sorrentine pulled up.

The image of Brennan holding his hands up in celebration has become iconic in the world of March Madness upsets. It’s one that fans nationwide remember, just as much as the game and the team itself.

Though the Catamounts fell in a hard-fought contest to Michigan State in the second round, that Syracuse game was what cemented Brennan’s and that team’s legacy. Coppenrath and Sorrentine graduated ranked second and third respectively on the school’s all-time scoring list, and Brennan retired after that season as Vermont’s winningest head coach.

Since then, Vermont has returned to the NCAA Tournament three more times, and is the runaway favorite to win the automatic bid in the America East again. Monday night, the Catamounts will look to snap a three-game losing streak against quality competition and set things right before conference play begins in a few weeks.

With Monday also bringing a reminder of past glory, fans in Burlington can hardly wait.